Understanding the Press Release
What is a press release?
A press release is simply a news article presented to the media to portray you, your service, or your company in a positive light. Press releases are an important part of an overall marketing plan because they will help keep your product or company in the public eye.
Before we go further, it is important to understand the basics of a marketing plan. Marketing is actually the sum of three separate strategies: advertising, public relations, and sales. Too often, business people become too wrapped up in the sales aspect of marketing, not realizing that without good advertising and public relations, their sales will go nowhere.
Advertising, at it’s most basic, is your direct, overt sales pitch. Advertising is conducted through the placement of advertisements, paid spots in print, audio, or visual media to make consumers aware that your product is available. Advertising focuses on cost/benefit communication with a potential consumer. Advertising states the benefits of the product to the consumer and justifies the price.
Public relations (or PR), on the other hand, is more subtle. PR focuses on creating a long-term positive image of the company. Consumers prefer to do business with companies with positive public images. Where advertising is designed to get a consumer interested in a specific product, PR is designed to get a consumer interested in the creator or company itself.
The sales aspect encompasses everything involved in actually closing the deal with the consumer. This includes affordability and accessibility. The product must be affordable and readily available for purchase in order for a consumer to buy it. The more access a consumer has to your product, the more likely they are to eventually buy it.
Many self-published writers focus solely on the sales aspect. They create elaborate websites and storefronts, and then spam forums with links asking people to buy. They go door to door to bookstores hawking their wares. Unfortunately, because they have not laid the groundwork of a solid marketing plan first by employing both advertising and public relations first, they are rarely taken seriously by consumers.
The press release falls under the category of public relations. Instead of serving as an overt advertisement for your product or service, the press release seeks to define you and your company as newsworthy. This is important to keep in mind. The target audience of a press release is not the buying public. It is the media. If you can convince the media you are newsworthy, they will get the word out about your company for you.
What is newsworthy?
For a press release to be successful, it must be newsworthy. Tens of thousands of books are published yearly. What, exactly, is so special about yours that an editor should allot space to announce it?
The fact is, nobody cares that yet another self-published writer decided to self-publish a book. Anyone with a computer and a word processing program can self-publish today. Announcing that you self-published your own book is not news, regardless of how great you think your book is.
To find the newsworthiness of your book, you need to swallow your pride and determine a news angle. And to develop a news angle, you must ask the question “Why?” Why is my book of value to the media? Why should an editor be interested in this story?
Newsworthiness can be defined in two ways: proactive and reactive. Proactive newsworthiness is when you can independently create a news article of interest, and normally it involves an actual event or activity.
For example, each year, Bards and Sages Publishing sponsors an international writing contest that benefits various charities. Both the release announcing the launch of the contest and the release announcing the winners are proactive news items. Other examples of proactive news would be sponsoring a poetry reading at a library, receiving an award, or announcing that a theatre group is performing your work.
Reactive, on the other hand, attempts to tie your product to current events. By taking advantage of existing interest in a topic, the author can generate interest in his own work. For example, right after a news story breaks regarding previously unidentified side effects of several popular prescriptions would be the perfect time to release a book on natural healing. Your release is in reaction to recent news events.
Are you Credible?
Once you have defined a news angle, you need to convince the editor that you have the credentials to support the news in question. No editor is going to run a news article announcing a writing contest when the judges are a bunch of teenage girls posting the winners on their Myspace.com page. Nor does an editor care that your website won a “Hugs & Kisses” award from your friend’s website. In order for your announcement to be newsworthy, it must be credible.
Take inventory of your qualifications. Whereas early we were asking “Why,” now we are asking “What?” What professional and charity organizations do you belong to? What is your education? What are your writing credits? What awards have you won? What is your business background? What in your life experience makes you newsworthy?
Now at this point some people might say “but just because I don’t have a degree in blah blah doesn’t mean my work isn’t credible!” This is absolutely true. But in the real world, that editor is inundated with hundreds of news articles and must quickly be able to sort through them all. She is working with a finite amount of space and a tight deadline. Who is she going to trust? A writer who has published twenty articles on the subject of her book through various publications, or a writer who has never published anything or formally studied the topic? Right or wrong, the editor does not have time to “give you a chance.”
But just because you don’t have formal training or paid publishing credits, does not mean you can’t prove credibility. Let’s assume you’ve written a book on home schooling. So maybe you don’t have a degree in education. In fact, you didn’t graduate high school. But you home schooled all three of your own children, who went on to graduate college and earn successful careers. You are part of a parenting group in your community that shares tips on home schooling. You have spent years working as a volunteer in a local adult literacy program. Your real world experience is just as credible as a degree, so long as it is presented accurately. Your life experiences are the news story, and this can segue into promoting your book.
Sample press release copy, not credible:
Jane Doe announces the release of her self-published book, Successful Home Schooling. This book provides parents with helpful advice on how to home school their children.
“I wrote this book because I wanted people to know that they can teach their children just as good as an public school teacher can,” says Doe. “You don’t need a degree to teach your children how to read.”
Even though Doe never graduated high school, she has been able to successfully home school her own children using the methods described in her book. Now other parents can use these proven techniques to educate their children at home.
The book is available through Lulu.com at http://www.lulu.com/janedoebooks
What’s wrong with the above sample? Most obviously, Jane Doe admits she’s uneducated and self-published, and she wants parents to trust her to provide solid information on educating their children. Jane doesn’t give the editor a reason to think she has any credibility, and therefore the release fails.
Sample press release copy, credible:
For the past five years, Jane Doe has worked as a volunteer tutor at the Anytown Adult Literacy Center. She started volunteering at the center after her youngest child left for the University of Anytown to study medicine. After home schooling her three children (two lawyers and the future doctor), you would think the former high school drop out would want to take it easy. Instead, she’s taken her incredible story and written a new book designed to help other parents successfully home school their own children.
Doe, who is also a member of the Anytown Home School Society, has taken her twenty plus years of practical knowledge and condensed it into her book, Successful Home Schooling. In the book, Doe not only discusses her own experiences with the public school system (eventually leading to her dropping out her senior year), but also how she came to the decision to home school her own children and the process she designed. Candidly discussing the trial and error approach of her early attempts, Doe then carefully explains how she finally developed her process and how it helped her own children reach their full potential.
Successful Home Schooling is available at http://www.lulu.com/janedoebooks
In the above sample, the fact that Doe has been successfully serving as a literacy volunteer and has home schooled three children who all went on to college provides contrast to the fact that she is a high school drop-out. This both gives her credibility and creates interest in her as a person. Editors, believe it or not, love success stories. And instead of portraying herself as just another self-published author, Doe instead illustrates how she has succeeded against the odds.
How do editors use press releases?
The process of writing a press release is much different than most other forms of writing. In most articles or stories, you start off slowly and build up to your eventual climatic ending. The press release works in the reverse. You have to get to the point first, and then add all of your details later in order of importance.
This is because of the two ways editors use a press release. Most commonly, press releases are used as “filler” in a newspaper or magazine, filling up the blank space between the featured stories. Because of time constraints, editors don’t actually “edit” press releases. If space is tight, they simply cut the release to fit. And when they cut, they cut from the bottom. This is why it is important to both keep your release short, and insure that the point of your release is in the first paragraph. You just don’t know where the editor is going to cut. You might spend weeks carefully crafting a detailed seven paragraph release, only to have the editor chop off the bottom four paragraphs.
The second way editors use press releases is to look for future human-interest stories. Human-interest pieces sell papers. Particularly in the internet age, people can get their daily news just about anywhere.
Newspapers and magazines, to keep reader interest, need to focus on what readers cannot get from electronic newswires and radio news broadcasts. This is why human-interest pieces are important.
People like to read about other people like them, everyday people in unique situations overcoming the odds. In our previous example, Jane Doe’s release is the perfect human-interest story. Not only is Jane a person who has overcome the odds, but her story can segue into more in depth stories about the state of education in the region in general.
But editors are inundated with news pieces. You have, on average, about 20 seconds to get an editor’s interest. If you have not gotten to the point in that time, your release goes in the shredder or gets deleted and he moves on.
How to write the press release?
Press releases are expected to adhere to certain formatting standards. This is because, frankly, it is how editors are accustomed to receiving them. If you try to break the norms too much in an effort to stand out, you may find your release ignored and unread. Editors are not impressed with fancy fonts, pretty paper, or colorful graphics. They are impressed with solid, concise writing and news that is in fact newsworthy.
The most important this to remember is that you need to keep it simple. You are writing a press release, not a feature story. If you do your job, the editor may very well assign a staff writer to write a feature story on you or your work. The press release should be no longer than two pages, and ideally it should be only one page long. If you find yourself going more than two pages, you are not writing a press release, you are writing a feature.
While there are some slight variations, for the most part the format of a press release should be as follows:
Your name or name of company
City, State, Zip
Web address (if applicable)
Media Contact Information:
Name of contact (most likely, you)
Contact phone number
Date of release
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
SHORT TITLE FOR YOUR RELEASE
Primary paragraph. This should include the “point” of your release. Why are you sending this to the editor? If the editor only reads the opening paragraph, what do you want him to come away with? Make sure you are clear and concise in our opening paragraph. It will determine if the editor keeps reading.
Secondary paragraph. Start to provide more details about your news item. This is normally a good place to plug your credentials, fill out more of the details of the above paragraph, and illustrate to the editor you know what you are talking about.
Third paragraph. At this point, you either wrap up your release by reiterating your original point, or provide a quote that the editor can use. “Quotes are an important part of a release,” says Dawson, “as they provide for the ‘human’ factor an editor is looking for.” But make sure your quote is actually relevant to your story and not just mindless nonsense to show how wonderful, smart, funny, or friendly you are.
Fourth paragraph. Any additional information that may be helpful, but not vital to the success of the release. Remember, at this point the editor is probably starting to think about where he is going to cut if he doesn’t have the space to use the entire release.
(only use if your release is going longer than one page.)
# # #
(this indicates the release is complete and there are no more pages)
Note to editors:
Information that will not appear in the release, but may be pertinent to editors. For example, if you are willing to send out review copies of the book, or allow the editor to reproduce an excerpt.
Your Media Contact information:
There are several things to consider before sending out the press release. First and foremost, is your contact information the information you want a potential editor to see? Many writers who write their own press releases use their home number for the contact information. This in and of itself is perfectly acceptable, so long as those in your home know how to answer the phone.
A friend of mine who works for a local newspaper was given a press release and told to follow up to write a feature story. When she called the contact number, a tired and obviously foul-tempered man answered the phone. She identified herself as a writer for the newspaper, but before she could finish her sentence, the man said, “We don’t want no subscriptions” and hung up on her. She tried to call again, and the man yelled into the phone “Stop calling here you (expletive deleted)!” and hung up. After conferring with her editor, they dropped the idea entirely and moved on.
Remember, the editor is doing you a service if they use your press release. It is not the other way around. It is your obligation to insure that they can quickly and easily get in touch with you. When I was doing freelance work for the Vineland Journal, one of the projects I was given was to interview successful female business owners in the community. The editor handed me a pile of releases she had been sitting on, and told me to sort through them and see if I could get some interesting stories for the project.
Upon calling one number, I was greeting with the voice of what sounded like a teenage boy. I asked for the woman. “Hold on,” he said. He put the receiver down and I could faintly hear him walk away.
After waiting two minutes, I hung up and called back. This time, I got a busy signal. Apparently, the young man had become distracted and never came back to hang up the phone!
The funniest situation was one another writer friend told me involving a young woman’s answering machine. Following up a release, he had called the media contact number to be greeted by a sultry voice saying “Hey, baby. You finally found me. Now what do you want to do?” He hung up, thinking he misdialed and had reached an adult dateline or something. He called again and got the same voice greeting. Being a bit more determined than most writers would have been, he called information to verify the phone number, and then called again. This time, the young woman answered the phone and he was finally able to talk to her. During the conversation, he joked that it was a good thing his boss had not heard that voicemail greeting because he would have though he was calling a sex hotline at work.
The young woman was mortified. Fortunately, this particular writer had given her three chances. They typical editor probably would have moved on after the first listening of the voice greeting.
Media contact checklist:
*Make sure the phone number is an active phone.
*If using your home phone, make sure everyone in the house is aware that media representatives may be calling, and that they know how to answer the phone civilly.
*Insure that there is a pad of paper and pen near the phone so that whoever answers it can write down messages, or if you need to write down information while speaking with the editor.
*Make sure your voice greeting is professional. While your friends might think your long, rambling message is cute, editors won’t.
*If possible, have a separate phone line for your business contacts, or use a cell phone number.
This will avoid many problems, particularly in a house full of children who tie up your main phone line.
There are times when you may not want your release to be available immediately. For example, perhaps you are releasing a collection of Christmas stories. You know that your local newspaper runs a special Christmas section every year two weeks before Christmas, and want your release to coincide with this.
Because special sections like this are normally planned weeks in advanced, you need to get your release to the editor a few weeks before the section normally runs.
In this case, you would send out the release normally, but instead of writing FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE, you would say FOR RELEASE WEEK OF 00/00/00. This immediately lets the editor know he can use this for his Christmas special section. While the editor is under no obligation to run the release at the time you requested, generally, they will do so as long as the release suits the publication’s scheduling needs. In this case, your release regarding Christmas stories is a perfect fit for the Christmas section, particularly if there is a not in your Notes to Editor section stating that you are willing to allow an excerpt to be published in the section.
When sending out releases for future release, it is important to send it out early enough that the editor can use it, but not too early or it will get lost in the shuffle. In general, do not send out this sort of release more than three or four weeks before the desired run date.
Your release title:
Your release title should read like a newspaper headline, and quickly give the editor an idea of what they can expect to find in the release. This is a good place to play up any angle to attract the editor’s attention. For example, if you are sending a release to your hometown newspaper, your title could read LOCAL RESIDENT PUBLISHES NEW BOOK ON EDUCATION. When sending the same release to media outlets where you went to school, you would change it to ANYTOWN COLLEGE ALUM PUBLISHES NEW BOOK ON EDUCATION.
Going back to Jane Doe, her title might read LITERACY TUTOR RELEASES BOOK ON HOME SCHOOLING. The title tells the editor two things. First, it is a book release about home schooling. Second, as a literacy tutor, the author has credibility on the subject.
Notes to Editors:
Information in this section does not appear in the release. This is where you can “sweeten the pot” so to speak. Let editors know review copies are available or that you are willing the let them reproduce a portion of the book in their publication. Perhaps you are open to providing extra copies of the book to the newspaper for an upcoming charity auction they hold yearly? Are you available for speaking engagements? (particularly useful when sending releases to charity or corporate newsletters, as they may be interested in inviting speakers for particular topics).
How to send the release:
The traditional method of sending out a press release is still snail mail, though more and more media outlets also accept faxes and e-mails. When in doubt, mail. Do not send releases to the attention of specific people unless told to do so. If you send a release to John Doe, Books editor, and John Doe is on vacation, on leave of absence, or has quit the company, your release may not be read until it is too late. Instead, address releases to the appropriate title for the person in question, depending on the publication.
Never send press releases to the editor-and-chief, because this person rarely actually has any input into the day-to-day operations of the publication. Is your book on sports? Send it to the Sports Editor. Is your book on movie trivia? Send it to the Entertainment Editor.
If the publication accepts releases via fax, make sure you include a cover sheet and the title of the editor you wish to reach. Many periodicals with an online presence accept releases via e-mail, but be sure to look over the website carefully to insure that you are using the correct e-mail address, and when in doubt call and clarify.
There are also a variety of services online that help distribute press releases. Online services provide the benefit of feeding your release to hundreds of news feeds, but they are not often as targeted as you may need. While it is more time consuming, you will always get better results sending out individual releases to targeted media outlets than sending out blanket electronic releases using an online service.
Sending out a press release when you have nothing going on:
It’s been said that a potential customer needs to be exposed to something seven times before they remember it. Because of this, it is important to constantly try to get your message out to your market base as often as possible. But you don’t always have a new book to plug, or a new event to announce.
This brings us to a less common but equally effective use of the press release, the commentary release. This sort of release actually helps generate credibility by the fact that they provide useful information.
With this type of release, you are actually writing a news story that, instead of plugging your book, product, or company, is plugging a general idea. Following is an example of such a release I sent out in 2005.
While this release is not directly plugging any specific book or project, it ran almost exactly as is on dozens of writer websites and blogs. The release is newsworthy because it is providing practical information of value to a particular target market. Notice that I spent very little time actually proving my credibility. There is no reference to my educational background, my work history, or my previous publishing credits. Other than the references to my professional memberships, the article focuses solely on my personal experiences dealing with submissions and the experiences of others I have spoken to.
The informational value is based solely on the “behind the scenes” data provided. The credibility comes from the first paragraph, a small press publisher explaining to writers the purpose of writer guidelines.
Offering specific examples that mention some of our projects creates further credibility. What does this article tell a potential editor? It says that this is a company with a lot of stuff going on, and a publisher who actively communicates with others in the industry. Without mentioning one name or offering any serious credentials, the presentation itself creates credibility.
Now let’s go back to Jane Doe again. Jane is still working on her book, but wants to start creating some buzz. Summer is coming, and with it the summer vacation travel season. Jane has a few games she would play with her children during long trips that helped build their reading skills. She could write an article discussing how parents can use these games. She might start her release as follows:
For many families, summertime means car trips to the shore, recreation facilities, or area campgrounds. It also means several hours in the car trying to keep young children occupied. Jane Doe, author of the upcoming book Successful Home Schooling, offers some fun games that will both improve children’s reading skills and help parents maintain their sanity on those trips.
Jane introduces a problem, the fact the children get bored on long car trips, and then provides a positive solution. By noting that she is an author, this provides credibility to what she is able to present to the editor. Jane’s book doesn’t even have to be completed yet. She can use this as an opportunity to simply make people aware it is coming, planting the first seed. A month from now, when Jane sends out her “official” press release announcing the book is available; parents who used her tips will remember her.
More importantly, Jane can now add the phrase, ‘she has published articles on the subject in various publications, including (fill in the name of a couple of newspapers that used her article).’
Using press releases in this manner is a great way to help build your credentials. For example, a poet is preparing to release a collection of her poetry, but has limited publication credits. In a nearby large city, a museum is sponsoring an exhibit on Japanese art. She might research and write a press release on Japanese poetic forms and submit it to the news outlets in the area. She might start her release as follows:
Over the next several weeks, thousands of visitors from around the country are expected to visit the Museum of Art’s exhibit on Japanese art. Interest in Japanese culture has increased in recent months, with a host of special events around the region. Aspiring poets can examine the traditional poetic artform of Japan to further immerse themselves in the culture. Poet May Doe, author of the upcoming collection My Poetry, explains the most common form of Japanese poetry, knows as haiku.
Again, the writer presents the situation, an increase in interest in Japanese culture, and then offers something new to further discover the culture. By providing a well-researched, short article on what haiku is and how it is written, May does not need to provide any further credibility accept for the fact that she will be releases a book of poetry.
The key to this sort of press release is to make sure you are writing about something that you actually know about. Check your facts before sending off the release, and make sure you keep the release short. As many PR professionals will also note, your release will be more successful if it is presented as a list (such as my original example). Lists allow editors to provide bullet points, which helps to break up long portions of text and provide a more reader-friendly presentation. Lists also allow for ease of cutting (remember, they cut from the bottom), so no matter where the editor cuts, the end of the story will appear natural.
Marketing 101: Understanding the Press Release by Julie Ann Dawson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.
About the Author:
Julie Ann Dawson earned a degree in English, Liberal Arts from Rowan University in 1993. While there, she also studied marketing, public relations, and sociology. Upon graduation, she worked as a Public Relations Assistant for the City of Bridgeton’s Department of Recreation and Public Affairs, writing press releases, creating marketing literature, and assisting with organizing special events. She honed her sales and marketing skills while working for a South Jersey Kirby vacuum distributor, first as a sales representative and then as a team leader and finally as a recruiter. While with Kirby, her sales efforts won five paid vacations, including trips to Hawaii and Montreal.
Her work has appeared in a variety of print and digital media, including such diverse publications as the New Jersey Review of Literature, Lucidity, Black Bough, Poetry Magazine, Gareth Blackmore’s Unusual Tales, Demonground, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and others. In 2002 she started her own publishing company, Bards and Sages. The company has gone from having two titles to over one hundred titles between their print and digital products.