Ten years ago the bulk of company press releases were still distributed through the post in the form of a letter. Today millions of pounds – and plenty of trees – are saved every year through the virtual distribution of digital press alerts. Broadly speaking, people who want to contact the media with a press release campaign have two main channels: a simple email or a website where journalists gather to view the breaking news of the day. These so-called ‘newswires’ and press release aggregators have evened out the playing field, meaning that anyone with a business can write and distribute a compelling story, even if they lack a bulging contacts book of high-profile journalists.
However, while the channels of distribution evolve all the time, the rules of a good story remain unchanged. Stories still have to be on-message and attention-grabbing if they want to be discussed in the media. “If we were to sweep up all the press releases pumped out today by the PR industry, I guarantee 98% of them will be dull,” says Paul Stallard, Managing Director of Berkeley PR. “Over and over again, we see the same old self-congratulating puff about new products, contract wins and strategic partnership agreements.”
“A well-known brand can get away with it because all eyes are on them and no journalist can afford to miss what a household name is saying,” he adds. “However, the truth is that a journalist wouldn’t care at all if they missed most companies’ press releases. The secret lies in the ancient art of storytelling. If you think about it, journalists are professional storytellers, so all you need to do is think as they do. The starting point is knowing what makes a good story in the first place. In other words, what makes news?”
Paul believes there are three main components to any good press release:
- Conflict – Journalists are basically storytellers and the best stories twist and turn with a good deal of drama (although ideally there’s a happy ending). Tell journalists what the problem is and then explain how your business can fix it.
- Human interest – Product launches are boring. The impact they have on people’s lives is not. Take pensions: not the liveliest subject matter until you come to need one. The human element of a story helps people identify with the message.
- Topicality – It’s vital to link your story to the wider world in some way. What are your products and services relevant to: Christmas, babies, technology, an aging population? Figure this out and make sure your release is topical.
Once you can define your story and wrap it up in a well-crafted press release, you need to think about how people will discover it and digest it in an online environment. There are literally thousands of press releases humming around the UK every day. How can yours stand out?
"It's all in the headline and first two sentences,” says Ali Cort, PR Director at Browser Media. “The who, what, where and why should all be up front and clear. And make sure you really do have something new to say. If you don't, your idea may be better as an article or blog post.”
This is all the more important online, because editors are no longer sifting through bags of letters but skimming over lists of press releases. In today’s media industry, attention spans are short and time is money, so grab peoples’ attention with both hands.
On top of this, consider the advantages of an online environment. Unlike a letter, you have a way of feeding interested parties direct to your website. “Include keywords in your headline and link back to your website over a couple of specific words or phrases that are relevant to your business within the body text,” says Ali. “These are both useful tools for search engines when explaining what your business does, so they can decide when and where your business should rank in search results.”
"In a digital age, you're not writing for just one audience anymore,” she adds. “Customers, investors, competitors, staff, as well as journalists and bloggers may all see your press release once it's appeared online. You should ensure your press release is technical enough for your priority audience, but that it doesn't alienate other groups.”
Jane Lee at Dexterity PR has the following 10 tips for press release production and distribution in the modern era:
- Keep it short and sweet
- Create a punchy headline
- Include the date
- Cut to the chase
- Expand on points but keep it snappy
- Include quotes
- Add business background and contacts
- Use illustrations
- Check spelling and grammar
- Target journalists in your field.
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