Nine times out of ten, I would hit the delete button and move on. Most press releases were not relevant to me, nor my readers. But, occasionally, even when the story wasn’t necessarily of local relevance, a press release would cause me to pause, and take the time to consider it as a potential story for that week’s newspaper.
Without fail, the successful press releases that reached my desk had all of the following qualities:
1. They had a compelling lead paragraph.
These press releases would start with an intriguing and interesting story, getting to the point quickly and effectively. If the first paragraph didn’t pique my interest, odds were that I wouldn’t keep on reading. If the first paragraph was well written, and inspired me to care, then I would keep on reading.
2. They got right to the point.
Even if the writer of a press release had managed to write a compelling lead paragraph, they usually lost me in the second or third paragraph if they didn’t get to the point. My time as a newspaper editor was limited; I would have to discern fairly quickly if the news release had any information that was relevant to my readers. I would want to know if the release was related to a local event, person or issue of local significance, and if that information didn’t show up fairly quickly, I would usually move on.
3. They were timely.
A press release can only be effective if the information is sent to a newspaper editor early enough for coverage to actually be possible. More often than not, I received press releases at the last minute for events I would have enjoyed including in my paper. However, with a limited staff that was already assigned to cover events, it would be impossible to respond without inventing a time machine (that, or perhaps a cloning device). A good rule of thumb is to provide at least a week’s notice. If the paper is a daily, that should be sufficient, although don’t be surprised if you find out that reporters are already assigned to cover something the same time as your event. A weekly newspaper requires even more time, given the constraints of having a once-a-week press deadline. The more time you give, the better. (Be reasonable, however; no one needs to know about an event six months in advance!)
4. They had local relevance.
If there is one thing I can’t stress enough, it is this. If your event is in downtown Toronto, don’t waste any time and energy sending press releases to Mount Forest. The editor there won’t appreciate it, and certainly won’t be sending a reporter to cover your event. However, if you have an issue that is of national significance, then you must find a way to localize your release for your intended newspaper. Target your editor, the same way that marketers target their customers. If you can make your issue resonate with a newspaper editor, then you are that much closer to getting your story covered.
5. They included useful contact information.
If a press release was sent by an organization, but there was no contact information, it was worse than useless. Another common mistake was to include contact information, but when the relevant spokesperson was contacted, she/he either wasn’t equipped to answer questions, or tried to pass me off to someone else. I didn’t have time to chase after potential sources for a story that was solicited from an organization, so this is where I would give up. Make it easy for the newspaper to contact you, and you are well on your way to success.
6. They were brief, but had all the important information.
To be effective, a press release has to include enough information to let the editor know why the story is valid, why it should be covered; in short, it needs all the reasons why that newspaper’s readers should know about that issue. That said, it needn’t be a book. If a press release is too long, it simply takes up the editor’s time. A good journalist will only use the press release as a starting point, and will want to ask their own questions and get their own information. Just provide enough to get them started, and the rest is up to them.
7. There was effective followup.
There were times when I received a press release, and had some interest, but it arrived just as I was putting the paper to press. I wasn’t interested in pursuing stories that day, and the release would be forgotten in the rush. Other times, the release never arrived, and got lost somewhere in cyberspace. It never hurts to follow up with an editor if you really believe your story is of relevance to that community. (See point 4). Just be mindful of the editor’s deadlines; if it is a daily, try to catch them earlier in the day, rather than later, and if it is a weekly, try the day after the paper has hit the streets. That’s usually the day an editor would start thinking about the next week’s paper, so the timing should be effective.
8. There were no spelling mistakes.
As soon as I read a press release riddled with errors, I would wonder about the legitimacy of the organization. There is always grace for press releases sent by amateur groups, but I would cringe if I received poorly spelled press releases that came from professional sources. Another issue (one that thankfully became less common as the years went by) was to receive press releases addressed to the editor that started with “Dear Sir.” Nothing aggravated me more than to have someone assume that it had to be a man in charge of the editorial department at our newspaper. Given the prevalence of newspaper websites, it is fairly easy to determine who your intended editor is. You should address your missive accordingly.
Those are my top eight keys for making your press release more effective.
What have you found to be helpful? I’d love to hear from you. Let me know your thoughts below.