Writing Effective News Releases

by Eva Augustin Rumpf

 

Funny thing about the writing profession. If you have a way with words, other people expect you to be as proficient at penning poetry as creating ad copy. If you write fiction, they assume you can turn out a technical training manual.

Yet good writers know each task has its own requirements. And to be effective, you must learn the technique.

If you need to diversify to increase your income or you want to try something different, consider writing for businesses, organizations or institutions. They routinely need good writers to help publicize their events and accomplishments.

Knowing the requirements of the media for news releases will help you handle these writing assignments like a pro. Furthermore, an effective news release promoting your new book could help boost sales. And what writer hasn't been called upon to write a news release for her local writer's club, statewide writers' conference, or other special event?

This standard publicity tool traditionally was called a press release. The more acceptable term today is news release or media release, in deference to the broadcast media. Observe this courtesy in terminology, even if your releases are used more by newspapers than by radio and television stations.

The purpose of the release is to announce something newsworthy to the media. The release might be in advance of a happening, such as announcing the groundbreaking ceremony for a new hospital, or a poetry reading scheduled by your writers' group. Or the news release can follow a development, like the promotion of a corporate executive or the results of a survey.

Reporters can't be everywhere, so they don't know everything that's going on. They rely on news releases for tips they or their editors may want to develop into media stories. On any given day, many of the stories you see in the newspaper or on the evening news may have been generated by news releases from companies, organizations or prominent individuals, such as politicians or celebrities. However, most media professionals don't like to admit that they rely on news releases to any great extent. They may feel that to do so compromises the image of independence and objectivity most reporters work hard to maintain.

Your primary goal as a writer of news releases is to have the information used by the media. This will please your corporate client, as well as add clips to your portfolio. You're more likely to accomplish this by following a few principles for the use and distribution of releases.

As with all good writing, keep the reader in mind. In the case of the news release, your first audience is the reporter or editor who receives it. What will it take to get that person to read your release, see some value in it and turn it into a newspaper story or an item on the TV news?

There's a maxim in the real estate industry that says the three most important things in selling property are location, location and location. It could be said that the three most important things in selling your news to the media are news value, news value and news value.

Editors - those who assign and approve stories for the media - are always looking at news value. They ask: What makes this item newsworthy enough to take up precious time or space in my medium?

Items that are not necessarily "newsy" but rank high in human interest or entertainment value are more appropriate for feature stories. For example, a profile on a grandmotherly volunteer at a day care center or a company employee who ran the Boston Marathon would be more suitable as features. Don't use these as subjects for a news release. It's more effective to give such a story tip verbally to a reporter you think might be interested. Or suggest it in a personal note to one reporter, offering the story as an exclusive feature to that medium.

News value can be an elusive and subjective quality, and it can change from day to day, year to year. But in determining news value, most media people look for such characteristics as these:

* Immediacy - Is this development recent and timely?

* Impact - How will it affect the public?

* Change - Does it represent a change, something new and different?

* Surprise - Is it unexpected or unusual?

* Proximity - Is it a local event, or does it have a local tie-in?

* Conflict - Does it involve controversy?

* Prominence - Are important people involved?

* Information - Is this something people need to know?

If your news release doesn't convey any of these elements, don't expect it to be used by the media. They are under no obligation to promote your company, your client, your cause or your book. That's what advertising is for.

However, what is considered newsworthy varies greatly from one market to another. The size of the community is often a determining factor. An item about the newly elected officers of the local PTA may make the small town newspaper but doesn't stand a chance in the New York Times.

Your news release may get more attention on a slow news day. The appearance of a prominent author at your state writers' conference might merit a long story or just a few lines, depending on what other happenings are competing for space that day.

The savvy news release writer will know the market, the local media and what is routinely used. And she will assess the news value of the item before writing the release. This means thinking like an editor and doing your own screening. Skip the trivial and the fluff.

The fact that the company you write for expanded the menu in the employee cafeteria may be important to the employees but hardly merits a news release. And the boss' latest speech on how wonderful the company is will draw yawns from the newsroom. These items are more appropriate for articles in the company newsletter, which reaches a select (and presumably interested) audience.

However, there are techniques for writing the news release so it sounds more like authentic news. Your intention is not to deceive the news media, but rather to structure your release so the news value, however small or remote, is spotlighted.

Write the release so it resembles an actual news story as it might appear in the newspaper. This means you should:

* Use the inverted pyramid style, putting the most important information first, followed by the details and supporting material, and ending with the least important.

* Use the standard straight news lead, which includes the "who, what, when, where, why and how" of the story, as applicable. This essential information should be in the first sentence or two.

* Pretend you are a reporter; write journalistically and objectively in third person. Use opinions and kudos only as direct quotes, attributed to a company executive or organization officer by name.

* Write with restraint. Keep the release to one page, if possible; never exceed two pages.

To increase the chances that your release will be used, keep these tips in mind:

* Use the standard format for news releases, typed on letterhead, double-spaced, with the release date and contact person's name and phone number at the top of the first page.

* Be meticulous with mechanics. Proofread for typos and errors in spelling, grammar and punctuation.

* Cull your media mailing list and be selective in distributing your release. While an item of low news value may interest newspapers or radio, TV is not likely to use it unless there are good visual elements. For example, TV may ignore a routine report on a company's quarterly earnings but run a story on a clown visiting sick children in the hospital.

Likewise, a story may be appropriate for a large urban daily paper but not the weekly business journal. A suburban or community paper may be interested in a news item about a local resident that a paper serving the entire metropolitan area will ignore.

By following these tips for writing and distributing news releases, you'll be respected as a professional by the media. They will be more likely to use your material, and you'll enhance your track record as an effective writer.

©copyright 2004 Eva Augustin Rumpf

This article previously appeared in Byline.

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