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In Praise of Press Releases - A Frank Discussion on Form And Function

Jun 26, 2008
There is no disputing the power of a well-written, newsworthy press release. In fact, it is one of the single best things you can do for your business.

Newspapers, magazines, radio and television news programs are filled with stories about businesses and organizations every day. What you may not realize is that those stories are often the result of a press release. There is a bit of skill involved in crafting a truly newsworthy release; the rewards can help stretch your promotional dollar significantly. Those who fail to master this skill are destined to wind up as the latest addition to the local landfill.

What Makes a Well-Written Release?
For starters, you need to know the difference between advertising and publicity. Many business owners use them interchangeably, when in reality, they are completely different. Advertising is what you use to promote your business and your brand. Publicity is what you utilize to have media outlets promote your business and brand, by way of a newsworthy "hook." Considering the sheer volume of information that media outlets receive each day, the hook in your headline may be the only thing a journalist will ever see. That said, you should approach it with that in mind, and make sure you've got a winner.

Why Bother?
If you have unlimited resources for advertising and promotion, you may not see the value in supplemental promotion via press releases. But consider this - a story covered in the media will automatically carry more weight in the public's eye, simply because we trust the media to be unbiased and impartial. Press releases offer an affordable alternative for those operating on a fixed or minimal budget. If you are able to write your own release, your only costs will be for the distribution of your release.

The downside? You don't have any control over what is published. If the editor slants the article in a manner that places your business or market in a negative light, there is little or nothing that can be done about it. In addition, you have no control over the timing of your release. While you may be looking for an immediate release, a reporter may file your release away and wait for it to fit an appropriate project that they are working on.

Follow the Format
Editors and reporters are inundated with press releases every day. Make yours stand out from the crowd with a compelling headline, and make sure that it is formatted correctly. Remember to answer the five W's: who, what, when, where and why. Below we've noted the basic elements of a great release, in the correct order.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE - this should appear at the top of your release. If you are submitting in advance of an anticipated release date, note that instead.

HEADER - Upper left corner, and it should contain all of your pertinent contact data. This is the first place a reporter will refer to when they have a question. Make sure you are using a professional email address, and refrain from using anything that will compromise the professionalism of your release. Let common sense be your guide.

HEADLINE - You get one shot, so make it count. Keep it short, with 10-12 words maximum -- and avoid hype at all costs. Avoid sales language or confusing jargon as well.

LOCATION & DATE LINE - Name your city, (or closest large city if you prefer), and the date the release was written.

BODY - The meat and potatoes of the release. Use your first sentence to support the headline. Build from there, keeping in mind that you need to approach it from the third person, as an objective observer. Employ a few quotations in the second or third paragraphs if possible. Tie up your loose ends with the final two paragraphs, and note your web address or contact phone number for readers seeking more information. Your release should be kept to one page if possible. End your release with the a series of three pound sign characters (#), centered at the bottom of the page. This notes the end of the release.

Skip the Hype
Nothing will land you in the circular file quicker than a press release that reads like a Stephen King novel, or one that is filled with sensational sales language that liken you to nothing more than a used car salesman.

Do Your Homework
Avoid sending out press releases blindly. Take the time to research the editor or reporter that is covering your subject matter, and address your release to them personally. Make sure you follow up your release with a phone call or email a few days later to confirm receipt, and answer any questions.

Know Their Timeframe
Make sure you refer to the Editorial Calendar of any magazines you may be sending to, and make sure you target your release accordingly. If they are a long lead publication, make sure you send your materials far enough in advances. For monthly magazines, a good rule of thumb is to pitch two to three months in advance. For newspapers, allow 3-4 weeks if possible. For radio, allow a few days if possible - although radio stations are well known for airing releases on the same day they are received.

Make it Newsworthy
Some great examples would include: announcing a partnership or joint venture with another business, the launch of a new product or product line, the kick off a special contest promotion, arrival of a special celebrity for an on-location promotion, recent studies or research that directly tie-in to your product or service, announcing milestones, awards, or promotions.

Don't be afraid to get creative. Do you offer products to the wedding market? Consider hosting an "Ugliest Bridesmaid Dress" contest. Do you sell to pet owners? Consider sponsoring a "Paws for Photos" photo shoot of proud pet owners and their best friends. The opportunities are only limited by your imagination - and, the more creative the idea, the better your chances are of being picked up by the media.

Distribution to the Masses
You've crafted a killer press release, and you are ready for your media blitz. What to do? There are many free press release services out there, make sure that you take the time to familiarize yourself with them to determine which one can best serve your needs. If your budget permits, you may wish to think about using the services of a distribution firm. Why? There are many reasons -- but the best ones are to take advantage of their existing database of contacts, reputation with the media outlets, and the time factor. If you have more time than money, then submitting the release yourself is the alternative.

Be Prepared for Results
Make sure that you have made ample preparations to receive calls, emails, and interview requests. Make sure that your voice mail is professional sounding, and that you check it often. If you provided your fax number, load that fax machine with paper. Be prompt when responding to email inquiries, and make sure you provide all of the information requested from you. Many publications will be on a very tight schedule, and any delay may render you out of the game.

You've Sent It... Now What?
One word, my friends - archive. If you don't have a Press Room on your website, add one. Archive your press releases in PDF format, and keep them there. Add high quality digital copies of your company logo, photos of principals, company overview, sales sheets, relevant brochures, etc. Give the media as much information as you are able. They appreciate the ease with which they can access these materials without having to wait for a reply from you.

Remember - Press Begets Press
If there is one thing that we continually tell clients, it is that press begets press. If you land yourself in the pages of Vogue, by all means, flaunt it! Not only does it give you valuable bragging rights for use in marketing promotions, but it also serves to beef up that media room. One simple truth about the media is that they hate being "scooped." Nobody wants to be left out in the cold -- they will want to make sure that they give you coverage as well.
About the Author
Traci Hayner Vanover, The Promo Diva(R), is the publisher of Create the Dream magazine, http://www.createthedream.com, and the president of Market Outside the Box Trade Association, http://www.marketoutsidethebox.com. She works with private clients as a publicist, copywriter and consultant.
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