The 10 Commandments Of Press Releases
In baseball, it's said that you know an umpire is top-notch when you nevër notice his presence. If he's doing his job, he won't call attention to himself in any way. It's much the same for the writer of a press release. When the recipient of a release focuses only on its content -- and not on its creation -- the writer has succeeded. With that in mind, here's The 10 Commandments of Press Releases:
1. Thou Shalt Be Professional.
No goofy fonts, rainbow paper or silly gimmicks. Even lighthearted press releases represent a communication between one professional and another.
2. Thou Shalt Not Be Promotional.
If you can't get enough objective distance from your company to write a press release that's not filled with hype and puffery, hire someone to write it for you.
3. Thou Shalt Not Be Boring.
Even the driest subject matter allows for some sparks of creativity. Journalists like knowing that there's a human being communicating with them, not some corporate robot.
4. Thou Shalt Be Brief.
Learn to cut out extraneous words. Keep your sentences short. Include only the points necessary to sell the story. The well-crafted one page press release is a thing of beauty.
5. Thou Shalt Know Thy Recipient.
A features or lifestyle editor is a very different creature from a city desk editor. If you're promoting the opening of a new winery, the food and wine editor may be interested in all the details about what kind of aging process and wine press you're using. The city desk editor just wants to know when the grand opening is and what's going to happen there.
6. Thou Shalt Use The Proper Tense.
When writing a hard news release -- a contract signing, a stöck split, a major announcement, etc.) use the past tense (Acme Industries has changed its name to AcmeCo, the company announced today...) When writing a soft news release -- a trend story, a personal profile, etc. -- use the present tense (Jane Smith is one of the best marathon runners over 40. She's also blind. Thanks to new technology from AcmeCo, Jane is able to...).
7. Thou Shalt Think Visually.
A press release is more than words -- it's a visual document that will first be assessed by how it looks.
I'm referring to more than font size or letterhead. I'm talking about the actual layout of the words. Whether received by mail, fax or e-mail, a journalist -- often unconsciously -- will make decisions about whether to read the release based on how the release is laid out. Big blocks of text and long paragraphs are daunting and uninviting. Short paragraphs and sentences make for a much more visually inviting look.
When writing a non-hard news release, I often use a simple formula -- the lead paragraph should be one or two sentences at most. The next paragraph should be very, very short.
8. Thou Shalt Tell A Story.
How to arrange the facts of a hard news release is pretty much cut and dried. The old "who, what, when, where and how" lead and "inverted pyramid" concepts still hold. (Rather than engage you in a course in basic newswriting, I'll direct you to a really good discussion of what the inverted pyramid is.
So let's focus on a soft news release. The trend story, the feel-good company story, the "gee-whiz, I didn't know anyone was doing that!" release. The difference between these releases and the hard news release is simply a mirror of the difference between a feature story in, say, the entertainment section of your newspaper and the breaking news report on page one. The hard news story is about cold, hard facts (A mudslide closed portions of Interstate 70 last night, causing massive delays). A feature article about the guy who spends all day looking at seismograph readouts trying to predict where the next mudslide will occur will be very different. It's likely to be in present tense, it won't load all the facts upfront and it will be designed to draw the reader deep into the text. It is, in short, all about storytelling.
Here's the formula I use for these kinds of releases. I call it the 3S approach -- Situation/Surprise/ Support.
The first paragraph sets up the situation. The second paragraph reveals the surprise. The third paragraph supports the claim made in the second paragraph.
One very typical 3S is discussing a common problem in the first paragraph (For centuries, people have accepted memory loss as an inevitable result of aging.) The "surprise" paragraph announces the solution to the problem (But one local man says he's ready to prove the medical establishment wrong.) The "support" paragraph then tells the story. (John Smith, an Anytown entrepreneur, says he's found the key to retaining a strong memory function far into old age. His "Memory Maker" software is based on ancient Chinese texts that were used more than 2000 years ago to...)
Another 3S -- let's revisit our mudslide watching friend. How would you start his story using this method?
While John Smith's colleagues at the National Atmospheric Center are watching the skies for signs of lightning and tornadoes, his attention is focused elsewhere.
John Smith is listening to the mud.
As the Chief Mudslide Analyst at the NAC, Smith spends his days glued to a seismograph, eyes and ears peeled for the telltale signs on an impending slide.
Along with the 3S in action, I also followed the 7th Commandment. That really short second paragraph is a visual grabber, and will keep the journalist reading right into the meat of the release.
9. Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness.
This may seem an obvious point, but it always bears repeating.
Tell the truth.
Don't inflate, don't confabulate, don't exaggerate. Don't twist facts, don't make up numbers, don't make unsubstantiated claims. Any decent journalist will be able to see right through this. If you're lucky, your release will just get tossed out. If you're unlucky, you'll be exposed.
It's a chance not at all worth taking. Make sure every release you write is honest and on the level.
10. Thou Shalt Know Thy Limitations.
Not everyone can write a press release. A good feature release, in particular, isn't an easy thing to craft. If you just don't feel like you have the chops to get the job done, hire a professional.
One last tip: right before you start writing your release, spend an hour or two reading your daily paper, paying special attention to stories similar in feel to yours. Immerse yourself in how the pros do it and you'll be in the right frame of mind to tackle the job! To view professional press releases updated daily, go to: PublicityInsider.com and clíck on the "Press Release Gallery"
Bill Stoller, the "Publicity Insider", has spent two decades as one of America's top publicists. Now, through his website, eZine and subscription newsletter, Free Publicity: The Newsletter for PR-Hungry Businesses he's sharing -- for the very first time -- his secrets of scoring big publicity. For frëe articles, killer publicity tips and much, much more, visit Bill's exclusive new site: PublicityInsider.com
Articles on Writing Matters:
Ten Business Writing Blunders You Can Easily Avoid
Most of us are too busy worrying about what we’re writing to think much about how we’re writing it. But in business communication, having command of a clear, readable style is essential to getting your point across.
Here are ten types of sentence blunders to avoid if you want your reader to get what you mean and not have to stumble through what you write.
1. Run-On Sentences. You know the ones: they drag on and on, packing a paragraph’s worth of details into a single sentence. Short sentences are easier to understand than long ones; they provide information in bits and pieces instead of a flood. In most business writing, aim for an average sentence length of 20 or fewer words. Note that this is an average, not a ceiling—the best writing contains both long and short sentences to keep it interesting.
2. Pompous Sentences. Many business writers use a phrase or a whole clause when a well-chosen verb would be much clearer. They do so to try to make themselves appear more knowledgeable or articulate than they actually are. Don’t fall prey to this error by using big words or trite expressions—keep your writing at the level of your reader.
3. Overloaded Sentences. Such sentences are bloated with excess words. The passive voice is a common culprit, adding unnecessarily to the word count. Redundancies are also to blame—verbose phrases can usually be replaced with one or two words, making your sentences concise and meaningful.
4. Undue Enthusiasm. An occasional intensifier lends emphasis, but using too many can ruin your writing and give the impression that you’re not being genuine. Otherwise, you come across like the literary version of a game-show host—wear that grin too bright for too long, and it will lose its meaning.
5. Crowded-Together Sentences. Many writers tend to try to connect a series of related sentences with conjunctions such as “and” instead of ending each with a period. In many cases these sentences can be improved and shortened by using only one subject.
6. Hedging Sentences. It is tempting to insert “it seems that” or “there appears to be” in your sentences in order to avoid stating a judgment as a fact. But when you have too many such hedges, particularly in the same sentence, you aren’t really saying anything. More often than not, your reader will know what is fact and what is inference.
7. Slow Starters. Starting a sentence with “it is” or “there are” simply delays getting to your point. Compare: “It would be appreciated if you could send the files immediately,” versus “Please send the files immediately.”
8. Nonparallel Sentences. Two or more similar (parallel) ideas should be presented in the same pattern, whether within sentences or between sentences. Lack of parallelism creates an awkward style. For example, the clauses in this sentence are not parallel: “Mr. Reynolds dictated the letter and next he signed it, and left the office.” Compared that to this: “Mr. Reynolds dictated the letter, signed it, and left the office.”
9. Awkward Pointers. To save words, business writers will often point readers’ attention backward with expressions like “as mentioned above,” ”the aforementioned,” “the former.” “the latter,” and so on. Doing so is a distraction to the reader and is usually unnecessary. If a reference does need to be made, it’s better to name or restate the specific thing being referred to.
10. Misassembled Sentences. A misassembled sentence is one in which an element is in the wrong place. The most common misplacement is at the beginning of the sentence, creating a “dangling modifier.” Take this awkward example: “Walking the office, a red sports car passed him.” Moving the modifier is an easy solution here: “A red sport car passed him while he was walking to the office.”
Courtland L. Bovee
18 May 2007
Courtland L.Bovee is one of America's leading instructors in clear and effective communication. With John V.Thill,he co-authors several leading college-level texts, including Business Communication. Thill is a prominent communications consultant and is currently the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Global Communication Strategies.Their website, Business Communication Headline News is the #1 business communication site on the web.
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