What is a press release and how do I write one?

in Top copywriting tips

A press release is a piece of writing you send to journalists for publication in magazines, newspapers or websites or broadcast on TV stations or radio stations (i.e. the press) telling them something that’s newsworthy that’s happened to do with your business. The publication of the story gives your company great publicity and greater credibility than an advert in the same publication would (not to mention being free rather than paid for).

The key to a successful press release – which we can define as one where the story gets published or broadcast – is to get the subject matter and the angle on it right. Think carefully about your story and your angle and be realistic about which type of publication will be interested in it. Send it only to the journalists at publications you think are likely to be interested. Doing otherwise is a waste of your valuable time, not to mention theirs. For many businesses while it might be exciting and flattering to have a story featured in The Telegraph or The Guardian there may actually be greater value in having it featured in an industry publication because that’s the one that’s more likely to be read by potential customers.

Let’s say you’re a widget manufacturer that has just launched a new widget. ‘Manufacturer launches new widget’ is not in itself particularly of interest. However, what the widget does is of interest.

If it’s a revolutionary widget that has the ability to save lives when installed in something, then it will be of interest to both general media publications (i.e. national and local newspapers and magazines) and industry-specific publications (i.e. the publications that are produced for people in your industry).

On the other hand, let’s say the widget makes a certain type of industry-specific machine more efficient. In this case, it’s more likely to only be of interest to the people in your industry or the people in the industry that the widget is for, so there’s limited value in sending it to more general media publications.

That said, a press release with the right angle can be successful in the wider media, even if the subject matter is – at first glance – less than compelling.

I remember a story that did the rounds in regional radio and TV recently about the dramatic rise in installations of black box recorders in cars (to enable drivers – often younger drivers – to get car insurance premiums based upon actual driving style rather than statistics). The company behind the press release was one that manufactured the black box recorders and had taken on new staff to keep up with demand. The wider human interest angle enabled the company to get wider and more general coverage than a generic ‘black box recorder manufacturer takes on new staff’ angle would have got.

Similarly, think of how often you see stories announcing new research or fascinating statistics that have a company behind them. This story – for example – has the headline Three in 10 people going through marriage break-ups lie about why they’re getting divorce to speed up legal proceedings, poll finds. The source of the story? Consumer law firm Slater and Gordon. In this instance, they had nothing new to sell, but the story was a great way to raise the profile of their divorce services.

How do you write a press release?

In lots of forms of writing, the aim of the piece is to build up to a dramatic conclusion and keep readers reading to the end. In press releases, the exact opposite is true.

You want to get the most important pieces of information across in the first paragraph. From then on, each paragraph should build on the story a little bit more. The idea is that you can stop reading at the end of any paragraph and have a complete enough picture of the story.

There are two reasons for this.

The first is to make the journalist’s life easier (and therefore make them feel better-disposed towards you both now and in the future). They’re busy people. If you get the key facts across in the first few lines they’re in a position to make a decision about the newsworthiness of your story in a few seconds. If the newsworthiness of your story is buried somewhere in paragraph six, they will be irritated (if they even get that far) by your waffle.

A clearly structured piece also makes their life easier because they can use your story to quickly fill a gap in their paper. If it’s a big gap they can include most if not all of your story. If it’s a smaller gap, they can simply chop as much as they need to off the end to make it fit. So, take time to think about the structure of your press release before you start writing it. What’s the most important information and what’s the least important?

The second reason is to replicate the format of newspaper stories and make readers’ lives easier. Take any newspaper story and you’ll see the complete story idea in action. You can read just the headline and have a complete – if brief – understanding of the story. You can read the headline and the first paragraph and have a slightly greater understanding of the story. You can read the headline and the first and second paras and … well, you get the idea.

So, tell the story in the headline (don’t worry about coming up with a clever or catchy line – that’s the journalist’s job) and build on it from there.

The who, what, where, when, why and how of press releases

A good press release answers all the key questions around the subject – the who, what, where, when, why and how.

  • Who is involved in the story and who is affected by it?
  • What is new?
  • Why is it important?
  • Where is it happening?
  • When is it happening?
  • How did this happen?

If your story is time-sensitive and shouldn’t be published before a certain date make this clear at the top. (For example, if you’ve won an award that’s going to be announced on a certain date, you’ll want the news to be published as soon as possible after the award is officially announced but definitely not before. So you might want to send the press release a couple of days before the official announcement so journalists have the heads up on what’s happening but not run the risk of the story running before it’s official.)

How long should a press release be?

A press release should be as long as it needs to be and no longer. Stick to the essential points that get all the facts across and no more. Think about your writing style because this will help you keep to the point. A press release is not the place for linguistic flights of fancy, whimsical words or lengthy expositions on the state of the world. Keep to a clear, no-nonsense, straightforward, factual tone.

While brevity is key for the main body of the press release, you might like to include a little bit of extra background such as a brief introduction your company to aid readers’ understanding of the story. This can go in a ‘Notes to editors’ section at the end of the main body of the press release (which you’ve indicated with the word ‘ends’ on a separate line).

What else do I need to know about writing press releases?

Make sure you’ve included the contact details (including the mobile number, ideally) of someone the journalist can talk to about the press release if they have any questions. A photo or photos are also a good idea. Include a caption for each photo explaining who or what is in it.

And that’s it. Your guide to writing a good press release.

Share this article

If you liked this, subscribe to my newsletter and get my latest blogs delivered to your inbox once a month.