INSIDE THE NEWSROOM – BY BENJAMIN J. GOHS
What better way to celebrate Valentine’s Day than to get tips on writing a good press release. OK, so there’s lots better ways … but here you are.
Hey there all you overworked volunteers, overwhelmed press agents and frustrated authors, business owners, school officials and library workers: I understand how important it is for you to share information about your latest fundraiser, upcoming event, new hire, etc., with the local media.
I also know—from experience—most of you are pressed for time and, fairly or not, many of you were “volunteered” for your position as media contact spokesman.
Keeping in mind that most of us did not major in communications and, even if we did, there was little or no time spent teaching us how to get precious data from our hot little hands onto the pages, airwaves and screens of local media outlets.
How to write a press release that will be published
These tips, for the most part, appear in no particular order:
Uppercase and lowercase – Be sure to use uppercase and lowercase letters appropriately. Nothing makes editors want to throw a page in the garbage faster than seeing 350 words in all caps. Your words are important to you and they are important to us. All caps is difficult to read and it screams unprofessional.
E-mail it – Without a doubt, every form of media out there is well into the digital age. We are all overworked and short-staffed, and having to take time to retype a hand-written or typed page of text is annoying, time-consuming and guaranteed to send your announcement to the bottom of the pile. Get an e-mail address and familiarize yourself with the basics. The Boyne District Library has computers you can use and they even have classes on how to use computers.
That said, we will and do retype notes from folks every week. We will continue to do so for those who simply don’t have access to the internet or are not comfortable using a computer.
Time/Date/Place – Get the good stuff out front. At the top of your press release should be the name of the event along with its time, date and location—in that order. Proper news style demands the time, date and place of an event be listed thusly: “Depressed squirrel support group meets at 9 a.m. on Tuesday Feb. 25 at the Squirrel Memorial Hospital, 123 Acorn St., Boyne City.” Be sure also to include your time/date/place inside the press release.
Plain text wins – There are a few different word processing formats out there, though it seems like most folks use some form of MS Word. Despite this, we receive press releases in PDF, Publisher and other formats that sometimes can be difficult to open and select text from. Your best bet is to send your press releases in both MS Word and as plain text in the body of an e-mail.
I prefer plain text because I copy straight from the e-mail and paste it into the design document I use to create the newspaper each week.
Formatting, formatting, formatting – Straightforward plain text wins the day. I can’t tell you how many times I get a press release with extremely narrow text that, once pasted into a document, breaks unevenly down the page.
Having to spend 10 minutes deleting extra spaces, marrying sentence lines and having to retype funky characters that result from someone using a cutesy font makes me want to cry. A sad editor is something we all want to avoid.
So, skip the weird colors and the crazy typography and the silly little clip-arts and just give me the message you wish to share.
Respect the deadline – What’s more frustrating than not being able to include your event information before your event because you did not get us your information in a timely manner?
You getting upset with me because I did not publish your information because you did not get your information to me in a timely manner.
Media outlets have posted deadlines for a reason but especially for newspapers, who have to layout the information—this takes an immense amount of time—and then print the product.
It’s so ridiculous that it makes me laugh when people come in on Wednesday morning asking how they can get their info into that day’s paper.
“Get yourself a time machine,” is what I think in that gray chunk behind my beady eyes.
What I say is, “We would love to publish your information but our deadline is 5 p.m. on Friday.”
The truth is, we routinely take information, photos and advertisements as late as 10 a.m. Monday, just before we go to print.
Respect the deadline and nobody gets hurt!
Space is limited – Space and time are both limited. Big revelation, I know. Point is, I have to hold numerous photos, press releases and stories from publication each week because we run out of room and we run out of space.
While respecting the deadline is good, getting your information and photographs to us earlier is even better.
In addition to my many duties of editing, writing, talking public officials off ledges and plotting world domination, I have actually piece the paper together.
And, while there are certain features that go in certain places each week, there is a limited amount of space we reserve for various press releases and events listings. And, you guessed it, the first to come are the first to be served.
Sure, there are other factors that determine which press releases end up in the Boyne City Gazette, but those I receive on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays have a far greater chance of being included than those that stumble in toward the end of the week.
Good quotes – Thinking of spicing up your press release with a quote or two from someone in your organization? Great!
Quotes are the frosting on the cake of a news story. Just be sure to include who said the statement and what their official title is.
For example, Jim Baumann is not Director of the Boyne Chamber. He is the Boyne Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director.
Full titles matter.
Anonymous quotes do us little good. Also, be sure the person quoted is saying something substantive.
“We think this year’s event will be the greatest ever,” is flowery and space-consuming but does not communicate anything special about this year’s event.
Keep it brief – A favorite line of an old editor of mine years ago was that he could edit a pop can. The point being that we can always trim unnecessary words from a story.
I am, what Stephen King calls, a “putter inner.”
I write long stories. I try to include as much information as possible in hopes the reader will come away with a full understanding of the situation in question.
Some folks enjoy long-form journalism and some prefer quick reads.
Crafting a press release is not the time to go all Herman Melville on us. Keep the information brief and to the point. If we think the topic deserves a full story, we’ll contact you and let you know … which brings me to my next point:
Include contact info – Sometimes we need more information. Sometimes we need to verify a time or date or place. Sometimes we want to ask for photo to go with your press release. Sometimes I just want to share the latest knock-knock joke I overheard at a conference for evil liberal media types.
Regardless of the reason, you will increase your chances of getting your message out there if you include the name, telephone number and e-mail address of the media contact at your organization.
Spellcheck is your friend – We all make mistakes. But, we make fewer mistakes when we all use spellcheck.
Sure, I read your press release and I run spellcheck on it and somehow, even then, mistakes can get through to the printed edition.
Perhaps it’s two of the same words words in a row. (See what I did there?)
Maybe it’s something spellcheck cannot fix, like a person’s last name. Isn’t that right, Mr. Grxckzplstnickenstein?
Either way, you do yourself and my tired eyes great kindness by proofreading your materials before sending them to us.
Realistic headline – Look, you’re trying to get someone to attend your cancer group fundraiser or your kid’s cookie raffle or your support group for grieving chickens … you’re not pitching a Hollywood potboiler.
So, my best advice is to write a headline that clearly indicates what your event or announcement is really all about.
And, remember, the headline you supply is merely a suggestion.
I have to determine whether it is accurate and appropriate and then I have to fit it in the available space … which is much harder than it probably seems.
In fact, many in the news business will tell you the hardest part of writing a story is capturing the perfect headline.
Story pitches – I’m including the story pitch with the press release pitch because the same rules apply.
If you think something would make a great story, we’d love to hear about it.
No, really. I get cartoon hearts in my eyes whenever someone brings us a neat feature idea or gives us the scoop on some government shenanigans. (Ugh. I promised myself I wouldn’t use the word “shenanigans” anymore.)
Be sure to include your contact info and, if possible, contact info for someone(s) relating to the story.
Your best bet for getting your concept produced is to consider a few things:
• Newsworthiness – This can vary widely but should hit at least one of the following categories:
• Does it affect a lot of people?
• Is it of local interest?
• Will it inform/entertain/enrich those who read it?
• Is it timely?
• Is it unique?
• Will it do more good than harm?
• Does it put a spotlight on an accomplishment?
Subject matters – If you want to be ignored, put the words “press release” or “news release” in the subject line.
I read every press release that comes into my possession but there are people who won’t bother with something so generic.
And, frankly, if you’re not excited enough about your information to take the 15 seconds to write a brief description, then why should I care?
Separate yourself from all the other folks looking for space by writing an enticing message in the subject line.
Words of caution: be accurate and appropriate in the description.
Trying to hyperbolize a message and mislead an editor by exaggerating or fibbing about the content will get you a one-way ticket to the pile with the Bigfoot hunters and the alien autopsy survivors.
Demands – I receive correspondence nearly every week from folks who expect me to contact them right away to let them know whether and when I will be publishing their information. I get hundreds and hundreds of requests every week and I have zero time to respond to each one with such details.
Many of these same people also direct me not to change or omit anything from their press release and—this is my favorite—they are also the ones who tend to tell me to notify them once it has published because they don’t read my paper.
Excuse me but, where I come from, you don’t ask someone for a favor and insult them in the same breath. It’s generally frowned upon in polite society.
Frankly, if you don’t read my paper, then how can you know whether my audience is your audience?
The truth is these types of folks send masses of e-mails to every media outlet they can find contact information for in hopes lazy staff will simply share their message without question.
I see poorly written press releases pawned off as staff-written stories every dang day. It’s not a good sign. (I think I just threw up in my mouth a little.)
I’m a firm believer in give and take. We’re all in this together. So, if you can’t pay a buck to buy my paper, I don’t think you deserve hundreds or thousands of dollars worth of my advertising space at no charge.
We like goodies – Yes, we want you to keep your press releases to the point. But, feel free to include links to supplemental information, studies, other articles, photographs and videos concerning your information.
The better you inform us, the better we can inform people about your event. And, the better the chances are that we will turn your press release into a full story with more prominent placement.
Be relevant – I swear I get a press release from an office supply company or some damn operation in Wisconsin every week. I’m never going to publish their information but they just keep on a-sending it.
Look, the Boyne City Gazette is a local community newspaper. Most of our coverage consists of events and people and governance and other topics within Charlevoix County.
Sure, if a state or federal matter has a direct connection with someone in our coverage area, we’ll write a story on it. But, for the most part, a book fair in Harbor Springs is not relevant to my readers.
A pancake breakfast in Detroit is certainly not valuable information for my subscribers.
You get the idea.
In my rush to finish putting a newspaper (not the Boyne City Gazette) together many many years ago, I stupidly included a press release concerning escalator safety.
I was in such a hurry I did not stop to realize that there probably is not an escalator within 50 miles of here.
It had no value to my readers.
I do not intend to make that mistake again. (https://www.colorado.gov/pacific/sites/default/files/Elevator%20_%20Escalator%20Safety%20Awareness%20Week%2011-09-2012_0.pdf)
Advertising is not news – I could man a professional soccer league (east and west conferences) with the number of business people who have tried to convince me that their latest product or sale deserves the same attention as a governmental meeting or local tragedy.
Not only is selling advertising space how we keep our doors open, there are great moral and ethical implications involved in masquerading paid content as news.
Understandably, sometimes that line seems razor thin.
After all, why do we publish photos and information about the new hire at the school administration building and not the new hire at McDonald’s?
Why is it OK to write a story about a local festival on a page filled with festival themed advertising but it’s not OK to take money from a company in secret to write favorably about their new widget?
We have a duty to the public to share information that matters to them.
Advertising must clearly be advertising and news must clearly be news.
When the two become indistinguishable, we run the risk of not doing our best to serve the public.
Be nice – Business experts would probably advise against it but I’m going to be frank about something: when someone comes in looking for free advertising for their event, and they’re being crabby with me or behaving as though they’re doing me a favor by acknowledging my existence, I don’t take it well.
I’ll still publish their information as long as they meet all the criteria and I still have space available. But, I probably won’t rearrange a page at the last minute to fit their information—something I do nearly every week for folks who deserve it—if they pull the Oscar the Grouch routine.
Let me let you in on a little secret: we, all media companies, are businesses.
This is how we feed our families.
This is how we pay our taxes.
This is how I stay stocked up on cherry bourbon and Taco Bell.
We offer free space to certain qualifying individuals—non-profits, educational outlets, senior citizens, fundraisers for sick folks, etc.—but we don’t owe you anything.
We are not subsidized by the government.
We are not a billion-dollar multi-national corporation.
Me and Chris are just two guys who work very long hours for very little pay because we love what we do.
And, to be fair, most folks are pretty gracious and respectful.
All I’m saying is: be nice to your local editor.
A happy editor is generous editor.