How to Obtain Free Publicity: Seven Simple Steps For Writing A Successful Press Release

by Debra Jason, The How-To Writer

You’ve just released a new product nationwide. . . been acknowledged by a national organization for outstanding achievement in your field. . . opened an innovative retail store. You want your peers, colleagues, customers and prospects to know about it, but how do you get the message out most effectively?

First, what’s your goal? Do you want coverage in a local weekly or monthly business publication, or are you seeking an article in a major nationwide magazine/newspaper?

As former magazine editor Art Spikol explained, ” It’s easy to send out a lot of releases and get some exposure, and it may work in neighborhood weeklies–but won’t work in the major leagues of journalism.

“If you believe you have something that’s worthy of, or even requires, public attention, the first thing to do is call us (editors) and explain what you have–a success story, a program, whatever.”

Spikol continued to describe his experience as Vice President handling public relations for a large medical center, “. . . we picked up the phone. . . . The result: We got less exposure of the one-column inch variety, and more the feature-story variety.”

Calling on editors and establishing a rapport is a very important aspect of public relations. In some cases, even after the phone call, they may request a press release. So, in either case, it is vital for you to know the style and format for writing effective ones.

For the purpose of this article, I’m going to discuss writing press releases that you’re submitting personally to an editor of a publication (either in print or online). However, you may also submit press releases to services online such as PRWeb, PRLog, Ideamarketers and WebWire.

Keep in mind that sending out a press release does NOT guarantee that you will receive coverage. Yours won’t be the only press release that an editor receives so you have to “stand out from the crowd.”

Former editor for The Denver Business Journal, Linda Plofsky Schneider explained that her experience “. . . shows that they (press releases) fall into one of three categories: the good, the bad and the ugly.”

She defines “the good” as those that “. . . contain what is known in journalistic circles as the ‘five Ws and the H’–who, what, when, where, why and how. They are provocative, plant seeds of interest about their subject matter and leave the reader wanting more information.”

When I started my business in 1989, I began submitting press releases to the business sections of various local (and sometimes trade) papers every time I:

  • “Landed” a new account.
  • Completed a project for a well-known client.
  • Was invited to speak on a topic.
  • Received an award.

After several months of doing so colleagues and peers began commenting, “I always see your name in the paper. Who’s doing your marketing?” They were still saying this six months later when my name hadn’t appeared anywhere. Colleagues and prospects connected my name with my face resulting in increased recognition throughout the local business community.

In an editor’s overloaded inbox or his/her pile of mail and faxes, how do you make your press release shout?

Following these helpful hints may result in receiving some media coverage–the amount of interest generated depends on how and what you write, and who you target it to.

1. Use a standard press release format.

1a. Use your company’s letterhead. At the top of the page you should always include the following:

Today’s date                                                 CONTACT: Name
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                   Contact’s phone number

1b. Always give a contact name. And, be sure that the person given as the “contact” knows that he/she has been delegated as such. “This should be someone who is fully informed about every aspect of your product or service and who will drop everything to get the editors what they need for their story angle,” explained Teri Lammers.

There’s nothing worse than catching the interest of an editor, having him/her call your contact, and your contact knows nothing about the press release or the subject at hand. How embarrassing!

1c. Always double-space a story so an editor can make comments/changes.

1d. Whenever possible, keep your press release to one page (8½” x 11″). In his book Practical Publicity: How to Boost Any Cause , David Tedone reminds his readers that, “. . . you are only trying to capture the attention of the editor or reporter, not tell the story in full detail.”

Teri Lammers suggested that you “Keep releases to a maximum of two pages–that should present enough information for a short article or generate enough curiosity to get your phone ringing.” If your release runs longer than one page, be sure to end the first page with “(more)” or “(continued)” and the last page with # # #.

Remember, the pointers provided in this paper are guidelines that have been used successfully by professionals. They are to be used as general guidelines to help you. With few exceptions, they are not steadfast rules that have to be followed.

For example, former magazine editor John Metzger talked about a semiconductor company that “. . . sent out ‘birth announcements’ instead of the traditional news release when announcing a new family of products. This unusual approach drew inquiries from editors of seven key trade publications and led to as many articles.”

In her article, “Writing Press Releases That Get Results,” Sandra Beckwith described a couple in Illinois that sent out a 2-page press release regarding their new product. “The two-page release and photo were sent to lifestyle editors at 250 newspapers; 75 used it, generating 3,000 mail orders.”

Don’t be afraid to experiment. However, if you use a “gimmick,” be sure that it is appropriate for the subject matter you’re discussing.

2. Keep it simple and straightforward.

2a. Get to the point. Provide significant names, dates, times, places. I try to keep each paragraph to a minimum of 6-7 lines. This makes the release look more inviting and in my opinion, is easier to read.

Public Relations Director Christel Beard and Corporate Communications Manager H.J. Dalton Jr. said, “Make your news release easy to read–and use. . . . Use a short punchy headline. . . Keep your lead crisp and concise.

“Avoid mind-fogging jargon. . . . They (reporters) need facts laid out clearly, concisely, and in an orderly fashion. They don’t need unfamiliar acronyms, jargon, or technical talk; they need to know what’s significant and what isn’t.”

2b. Stick to the facts. Every presentation by an editor that I’ve heard, or book or article I’ve read on the topic of press releases gives the same advice. Tell the truth. Don’t assume anything. From minor details to major ones, make sure the information you provide is accurate.

For example, if you mention “Monday, January 25, 2011,” double-check that January 25th does indeed fall on a Monday. Make sure all names are spelled correctly. . . phone numbers are correct, etc.

3. Create an attention-getting headline.

In talking about “How to write potent copy,” ad man David Ogilvy said, “The headline is the most important element in most advertisements. It is the telegram that decides the reader whether to read the copy.” I believe that this applies to press releases as well.

Remember, yours is one of many press releases coming through an inbox or across an editor’s desk. In only a few seconds, you have to grab that person’s attention and get them to read on about your product, service, company, etc.

Here are some of Ogilvy’s tips for writing headlines that you can apply toward developing creative press releases that catch the interest of an editor :

  • “. . . appeal to the reader’s self-interest. It should promise her a benefit, as in my headline for Helena Rubinstein. . .” HOW WOMEN OVER 35 CAN LOOK YOUNGER.
  • “Always try to inject news into your headlines, because the consumer is always on the lookout for new products, or new ways to use an old product, or new improvements in an old product.”
  • “The two most powerful words you can use in a headline are FREE and NEW.”
  • “Other words and phrases which work wonders are HOW TO, SUDDENLY, NOW, ANNOUNCING, INTRODUCING, IT’S HERE, JUST ARRIVED, IMPORTANT DEVELOPMENT, IMPROVEMENT. . .”
  • “People are more likely to read your body copy if your headline arouses their curiosity; so you should end your headline with a lure to read on.”
  • “Avoid blind headlines–the kind which mean nothing unless you read the body copy underneath them; most people don’t.”

4. Don’t bury the lead.

From one authority to the next, the message is the same–“Don’t bury the lead.” Here is the advice that three different authors give in their books:

  • “You must present the essentials immediately and as briefly as possible.” Art Stevens, The Persuasion Explosion (Acropolis Books Ltd.)
  • “When you sit down to write a news release, make sure you have the answer to these five questions (Who? What? When? Where? Why? or How?) and then
    write your first paragraph, making sure it contains all this information. . . .
  • “Why? Many times this is all that will get published of the news release.” Rolf Gompertz, Publicity Advice & How-To Handbook, (The Word Doctor Publications)
  • “. . . the editor should get the most important news first.” David Tedone, Practical Publicity (The Harvard Common Press).

See what I mean? Most public relations professionals agree, when writing your press release, it is essential that the “gist” of your story be present in the first paragraph of your release. If you bury what is known in journalism as “the lead” down in your third or fourth paragraph, you risk losing your editor’s attention.

To catch the attention of editors immediately, give them your big news first. As Teri Lammers suggested, “. . . important, useful information you should deliver right up front.” For example, if you’re introducing a new product you can explain how easy it is to use. . . how profitable it is for retailers who will sell it. . . how (if applicable) it ties into any current news or community events. . . etc.

As Beard and Dalton put it, “. . . search hard for a fresh angle that will give your story the proper appeal or ‘spin.’ This can be done by focusing on things like market share data, price comparisons, an outstanding statistic, or other numbers that play up the uniqueness, size, or quality of your company or product(s). . .”

In her article, Sandra Beckwith wrote, “One business owner capitalized on car-seat legislation. Her release stress her car-mirror product as a safety device. The release generated 3,000 orders.”

Who wouldn’t like to generate results like that?

5. Target your market.

Just like in direct marketing, if you send your message to the wrong audience, you won’t get your desired results. “Many business owners make the mistake of thinking that a press release is an effective way to flood the market with news about their company. But as with any sales effort, it’s a waste of time, energy and money to try to appeal to prospects who have no need for your product or service,” explains Beckwith.

She went on to describe a Phoenix-based public relations firm that promoted a company marketing biplane rides:

“. . . used her local media database to distribute a feature-oriented release to people with the right titles. . . .Her telephone soon began to ring with requests
for interviews. . . . And, it generated more than 30 calls per day from people interested in riding the biplane–a boon for the start-up company, which charged $250 per ride.

“The release worked because it matched a story idea with feature writers and reporters who were interested in pursuing stories about unusual new companies. . . . paid advertising in those publications would have cost more than $20,000.”

There are no guarantees, but there is also no reason why this can’t happen to you. Remember to research the publications you have in mind. “As any savvy marketer will tell you, you don’t focus on a particular industry without first doing some in-depth research,” claimed Beard and Dalton.

If you’ve just won an outstanding achievement award, then sending out a release to local weekly or monthly business publications may be enough. If you have just launched a new software product that’s a big time and money-saver, then computer and high-tech publications are more likely to bring you better results.

In each case, call the publication first and find out who the appropriate person is for you to contact. Many times you can also go to their Web site and get the appropriate contact information online.

Consider creating several versions of your release to target specific publications. Simply change your headline or lead-in paragraph so it’s appropriate for each market. As Katie Muldoon suggested, “. . . a health story regarding new heart-disease information can have different lead titles–but the same essential information–to attract the editors of men’s, women’s, health magazines and even general print media.”

6. Send out your release in a timely fashion so that it reaches its destination before it’s old news.

There’s nothing worse than announcing a free seminar you’re presenting on the 10th of February, but your press release doesn’t hit the editor’s desk until the 11th. Be sure you plan your public relations efforts with care.

Remember, editors have deadlines too. Keep a list of media deadlines on file so you know exactly when materials need to be in their hands.  You might even call before sending out your release and ask how they prefer to receive your information – via fax or e-mail.

7. Follow-up, follow-up, follow-up.

Once you’ve sent your release, take the time to follow-up with a telephone call or a brief e-mail message. Not only does it help enhance your credibility and establish a rapport, it gives you the opportunity to provide any information the editor might need to embellish your story.

Sandra Beckwith explained that, “In my career as a publicist, I’ve found that one effective follow-up strategy is to call an editor to ask if you can answer any questions about the release, or to see if you can provide additional information. . .

“Another strategy,” she continued, “is to tell editors that the release you sent has information they can use in a particular section of their publication.” For example, a new restaurant may suggest coverage in the entertainment section. Or, a REALTOR may propose a piece in the real estate section.

Steve Strauss (aka Mr. AllBiz), said this about follow up. “We are all busy these days, and things do fall through the cracks. A gentle reminder, a joke, a follow up e-mail, all can be important.”

A word about photos

Personally, having my photo in the paper along with my news increased my visibility in the local business community. However, sending a photo along with your press release doesn’t guarantee that it will be printed in the paper. I found that many times, if space allowed, it was included.

Tedone believes that, “A high-quality photo of your subject or speaker is an excellent attention-getting device. . . . Photos work particularly well with short press releases. . . . When editors receive such an announcement with a photo, they will often print the photo and include the who, what, where and so on, as a caption.”

In the early to mid-nineties, I used to send a 5″ x 7″ black and white photo backed with cardboard. On the reverse side of the photo I requested that it be returned and provided my address. Some publications will tell you beforehand that your photograph won’t be returned. Others request a self-addressed stamped envelope. And, still others will return it simply if you request it and supply your address. Of course, with today’s advanced technology, you may e-mail a photo quickly & easily instead of sending it via “snail” mail.

Whether you include a photo or not, your success in receiving press coverage comes down to your ability to write clear and concise attention-getting press releases. You don’t have to tell an editor your life history, just the vital details that will quickly pique his/her interest.

Remember these 3 tips:
1. Get to the point promptly.
2. Stick to the facts.
3. Keep it simple.

I hope to be reading about you soon. Good luck!

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Freelance Copywriter Debra JasonDebra Jason is a seasoned copywriter with more than 25 years of experience in the field of direct marketing. Based on Kauai, HI, her business, The Write Direction, offers copywriting services specializing in writing copy for brochures, catalogs, collateral materials, direct mail packages, e-mail messages, Web sites and more. She may be reached by phone at (808) 826-1846 or click on “Contact Us” and send her an e-mail.

©Copyright 1995, 1997-2002, 2005, 2010-2011. Debra A. Jason dba The Write Direction. All rights reserved. No portion of this paper may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or using any information storage/retrieval system now known or to be invented, without written permission from the author.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bear, Christel K. and Dalton, H.J. Jr. “The Power Of Positive Press.” Sales & Marketing Management, January 1991.

Beckwith, Sandra L. “Writing Press Releases That Get Results.” Home-Office Computing, June 1991.

Gompertz, Rolf. Publicity Advice & How-To Handbook. California: The Word Doctor Publications, 1988.

Lammers, Teri. “The Press-Release Primer.” Inc., August 1991.

Muldoon, Katie. “PR: A Company’s Unknown Weapon.” DM News, February 11, 1991.

Ogilvy, David. Confessions of an Advertising Man. New York: Atheneum, 1963.

Spikol, Art. “Relating the Truth.” Writer’s Digest, May 1993.

Stevens, Art. The Persuasion Explosion. Washington, D.C.: Acropolis Books Ltd, 1985.

Strauss, Steve. “The (Almost) Surefire Method for Getting Publicity for Your Business.” American Express Open Forum, Feb. 11, 2010.

Tedone, David. Practical Publicity! How to Boost Any Cause. Massachusetts: The Harvard Common Press, 1983.