Writing press releases – 10 tips

In giving feedback to a PR student recently on a press release she had written, she responded as if I had showered her with droplets of gold!

Anyone who is writing press releases for a small business knows that it isn’t as easy as it might seem. And it’s hard to get advice on how to do it better.

So I’ve gathered the most salient points from my feedback to the student, and reproduced it here, on the assumption that if these tips helped her, they might help others who are writing press releases for small businesses.

To put the tips into context, the press release we were working on together was about the effects of tree-felling on tourism in Tasmania, and how small tourism businesses were battling to protect the ‘wilderness frontier’.

  1. Putting a positive spin on a story gives it an energy that negative spins don’t have. In this case, my advice was to angle the main headline to highlight the brave battle being fought by the tourism operators, rather than focus on the damage inflicted by the forestry giants. The headline I suggested was: Small ecotour operators take stand against forestry giants. Suddenly a release that could have been just another whinge about logging becomes an appealing ‘David & Goliath’ story.
  2. Most press releases contain way too much ‘spin’. Every good story has a natural spin that you don’t need to add to, and in the end, it’s the journalist’s job to write the story and impose their own angle on it. So use words economically and let the facts speak for themselves. If there are views that need to be expressed, you can do this by quoting the personalities involved. For example:
    Tasmania’s wilderness frontier is under siege, say local tour and accommodation providers.
  3. Statistics are great! Use them as much as you can and make them up to date, relevant and newsworthy – this will really help to get you attention.
  4. Beware of inaccurate statements. It’s human nature to exaggerate for effect, but remember journalists are trained to weed out inaccuracy. Here’s an example from our draft press release:
    Without the wilderness there would be no tourism in Tasmania.
    You can see how this statement arose – but it’s factually incorrect.
  5. Tempting as it is to use your press release to promote your business, it’s imperative to stick to the issue most likely to get the story published. Any extraneous information that might be of interest to the journalist can be included via links in the ‘Further information’ section at the end of your release. Here’s a paragraph that crept into our press release:
    There are many relaxing and challenging activities for the holiday-maker to enjoy, including the 480km Tasmanian Trail, hiking, caravanning, camping, canoeing, boating, kayaking, mountain biking, four wheel driving and fishing…
    Suddenly we’re into promoting the destination, and a journo will stop reading at this point. So if you find yourself writing text that’s really advertising, cut it out. If it’s useful background information, but not part of the main message, put it into the ‘Further information’ section.
  6. Apply the ‘who cares’ rule. Our press release was about losing the wilderness experience if logging continues. The underlying aim of the release was to gain exposure for the central personality initiating the release – a small tourism operator with a vested interest in protected the wilderness. However, take this beautifully written paragraph:
    Wilderness tour guides know too well the effects of logging on their businesses, which rely on the ecosystems and natural beauty in the State Forest and World Heritage Area.
    Now ask the question, who cares about the tour guides and their businesses? Most people are interested primarily in themselves – in this case, about the threat to our chance – and our children’s chance – to experience the true wilderness. We also care about the economy, which is why stats were important to the story too. The tour operator was the lynchpin but not the issue. You, your business, your products, will be vital to the stories told in your press releases, but does your story pass the ‘who cares’ test? You are the lynchpin, but you’re probably not the issue.
  7. Be hard on yourself when you edit your press release, and literally delete anything that doesn’t add to the story. Here are a couple of examples from our draft release. The first states an obvious truth and wastes space on the page – it certainly isn’t news and may therefore be the point in the release where the journo stops reading:
    Eco-tourism operators want growth within the tourism industry, not decline.
    This is also a pointless sentence:
    There is no doubt why there is concern over the future of Tasmania’s forests.
  8. Never use exclamation marks in a press release!!
  9. Links in the ‘Further information’ section are a good idea – as long as they are useful and take journalists straight to the background information quickly. It should also be clear in the press release itself what kind of information the links are going to give them. If you link to a business report pdf that’s 10mg in size, journos won’t thank you and they certainly won’t plough through it – that’s assuming it doesn’t crash their computer first!
  10. My final point is worth taking away and pondering. Writing press releases about your business can become an introspective task if you’re not careful. Good journalism is just the opposite. It’s about the reader, not about the journalist. So when we produced our press release, it wasn’t about the tourism operator himself, although he is involved in the issue and quoted in the release. The message is about an issue likely to interest readers, viewers and listeners. The attention our client gains from publicity is incidental to the central story – but it’s still attention, and it’s good publicity.