The humble press release is among the oldest and most commonly-used (and abused) tools in the PR toolkit, but don’t be mistaken – it is also one of the most powerful. It’s a clear, succinct and widely accepted way to get news into the hands of journalists. (Oh and the image above is a really old ‘press release’ – the cave-wall depiction of a pig and buffalo hunt is the world’s oldest recorded story according to archaeologists who discovered the work on the Indonesian island Sulawesi – the scientists say the scene is more than 44,000 years old! More on that here: Is this cave painting humanity’s oldest story?)
As an award-winning B2B PR agency, we’ve written a few press releases in our time – thousands in fact. We also pride ourselves on our press contacts, and we’ve asked some of them (including journos from the BBC, Sun and Daily Express), what makes a great one.
A press release is a document that organisations use to share news with journalists. Press releases usually adhere to a strict format to make it easy for a journalist to write a story on the subject.
Organisations hoping to attract news coverage can write their own press releases or work with a PR agency to write one. The standard press release structure typically involves a headline, subhead, two paragraphs detailing the news, relevant quotes and contact information – more on the format later.
The finished release is then sent directly to relevant journalists – more on this later, too. Press releases are also sometimes called ‘news releases’ or ‘media releases’.
Even in the modern era, the humble press release still plays a vital role in many digital PR campaigns. Learn more about some of the other key elements in our blog – what is digital PR?
What makes a good press release?
A press release must be used for news – essentially, interesting, new information that people may want to read. Common complaints from journalists include: “That’s not very interesting”; “That is not new”; “Company releases product is what companies are supposed to do – that’s advertorial not editorial”; “ We don’t care about your new office”. As the aphorism goes, people aren’t interested in ‘dog bites man’, but ‘man bites dog’ is worth reading about. If in doubt, look at existing news coverage for a deeper understanding of the types of stories that are of interest to the media.
Quantifying ‘newsworthiness’ seems like an impossible challenge, but in 2017, Tony Harcup and Deirdre O’Neill published a paper in Journalism Studies entitled ‘What is News?’. This excellent, easy-to-read academic article provides 15 criteria to help identify stories that are likely to succeed.
According to researchers Harcup and O’Neill, criteria that make a press release newsworthy include:
Unique audio or visuals
The power elite
Stories that fit the news organisation’s agenda
A newsworthy story should include at least one of these criteria, but even the academics conclude that there’s an element of ‘I know it when I see it’ to newsworthiness.
What makes a bad press release?
We’ve pitched a lot of press releases – or rather we’ve pitched a lot of stories encapsulated in press release format. In the early days we were shouted at by our fair share of journalists for pitching them boring stories and wasting their time. We stopped doing that. As such, whenever a company asks us to pitch a non-newsworthy story we make the following points:
If we do that it’ll damage the media’s opinion of said company
Do it too often and said company runs the risk of the media ignoring anything interesting they have to say in future
If we pitch rubbish then it impacts our other clients who are also interested in the same journalists. We would be doing them a disservice by doing that
Don’t just take it from us though. We asked a few of our contacts about the press release subjects that annoy them the most.
Ryan Morrison at Daily Mail Online said: “I don’t think I’ve ever run a story on a company winning an award, rarely write a story on a company winning a new contract or about the promotion or appointment of a new executive.
“The exception to the new executive rule is if it is a huge name – so if Elon Musk becomes CEO of Apple for example. For the winning a new contract – it would need to be high profile or related to a high profile story – Nokia winning a BT contract for 5G kit for example.
“I rarely even open emails about an award or new contract unless it is a very high profile company, and even then it would need to be particularly interesting or unusual.”
Geoffrey Carr, science and technology editor at The Economist also chipped in with the following: “The thing I hate most is a content field that starts with stuff like “Embargoed until DATE/TIME”. I don’t care about that. I want a quick summary of the story. If it is embargoed, I’ll probably be able to work that out.”
How to write a press release that journalists want to read
At Definition, we’re all about personalised, high quality media relations. We’ve written in the past about how to pitch journalists and how to handle media interviews, but for this blog on what makes a good press release, we think its best that you hear from the journalists themselves.
The journalists all agreed that the most important sentence in the entire release is the first one. Will Smale of the BBC said: “What is the story about? Tell me in the first sentence.” Jane Warren of the Daily Express colourfully described the first line as, “an arresting standfirst that distils the essence of the release with flair!”
Tara Evans of The Sun said that a good release should include “all the information, pics (in high res), and relevant contact info.” She says it should “never be attached as a PDF, always in the body of the email.”
Susie Bearne, a freelance media consultant who has written for the BBC and The Guardian, among others, advocated for a temperate tone. She said: “Use your quotes as a way to add extra insight. So many quotes are just tagged on, with words such as ’I’m delighted that…’. Stop right there. Of course you’re delighted, we can see your press release. We’ll only end up cutting that jargon and nonsense out. Also, stop using capital letters for job titles.”
Finally, the journalists also called for organisations to consider who they’re actually sending releases to, in Rachel Hall of The Guardian’s words, “think about why the editor’s specific readership would care about a story and articulate that clearly at the top.” Sean Coughlan of the BBC agreed: “Remember who it’s being sent to rather than who it’s being sent from. A problem with many press releases is that they’re of more interest and relevance to the organisation sending them than to the recipient or the reader.”
The best press release structure
Writing a press release isn’t a creative task; it’s a formula. Adhering to the standard form of a press release makes it easy to parse for time-pressed journalists – straying from the path when writing a press release will almost certainly get your story tossed out.
Throughout, the news should be written in the present tense and framed in terms of its larger consequences – who it helps, why it matters, what about it is newsworthy – not its relationship to the company. Never repeat a detail and keep jargon to a minimum. Journalists tend to prefer releases in the body of an email rather than as an attachment, and they shouldn’t be longer than a page.
The best press release format is a so-called ‘inverted pyramid’, much like a newspaper article, which offers the story in increasing levels of detail as the reader progresses through it. Here is how that breaks down:
Headline: short and punchy and focused on the most surprising, newsworthy element of the story.
Sub-header: should provide a sentence or two of detail, if necessary.
Opening paragraph: always starts with the dateline in the format: day, month, year, location of news, country. The first paragraph should convey the key points as if you were telling someone about the news in a lift. It should include a summary of the ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘where’, ‘when’ and ‘why’ of the story in no more than two sentences.
Second paragraph: should include the rest of the detail to support the first paragraph.
Quote one: quotes are a great way to bring a story to life, explain why it matters and insert a little bit of extra information. Remember, your CEO might not be best placed to quote – maybe you need to include a quote from someone the news has actually impacted.
Quote two: any other relevant spokespeople?
Closing paragraph: this is your chance to add a little bit of extra information that didn’t fit in earlier sections. It can be up to five sentences long – but it’s unlikely that readers make it this far. At the end of the release, write -ENDS- on a line by itself to clearly indicate that’s your lot to anyone reading it.
Contact details: if they have made it this far, they are probably looking for more information, so it’s important to offer a way to get in touch in case the journalist wants additional information/clarification.
Notes to editors: this is where you put any information which may be useful for journalists which doesn’t fit in the main release.
Press releases are designed for news. If you don’t have any (and we appreciate knowing what is newsworthy and what isn’t can be a challenge in itself if it’s not something you do day to day) then they’re often not an appropriate format for your PR efforts. Don’t spam journalists with irrelevant material – you’ll damage your reputation with them and make it more likely any genuine news you send over will be ignored.