By Michael Tonos
Nothing’s as basic to marketing as “know your product, know your audience.” If you don’t know what you’re selling or who you’re trying to sell it to—well, don’t even try.
The same holds true for communicators who depend on press releases, especially via the traditional mass media: Know what you’re writing about, and know who you’re trying to reach.
With press releases, the first part is fairly easy. Research and experience can create enough expertise for a writer. But the second part is more complicated. An effective press release has to serve three audiences—the media, the readers and your company or client—without overly favoring one over the others.
For instance, a release that begins “Company ABC is proud to announce…” followed by three quotes from the CEO is paying too much attention to the client.
Likewise, a release that includes even subtle criticism of your new product might make for decent journalism, but it can hurt your client.
And if you stop with the 5 W’s, readers likely will be shortchanged on other information they need that can help them take action.
But there’s enough overlap in the wants and needs of each audience that a good press release can serve all three. Starting with the media, here’s how you can make everybody (relatively) happy. And these principles apply to video as well as print:
What’s important for the media
- News value: Here’s the deal. The media wants news, you want the coverage. So you need to know news: Why would anyone care about this? What makes it relevant to the media’s audience? If you didn’t come out of J-school, get familiar with the characteristics of news.
- Usable format: Is the release submitted in a format that’s functional and follows standard guidelines? Is the release an attachment or is it included in the text of the email? Can the media simply cut and paste without a lot of reworking?
- Appropriate writing style: Does the release follow standard writing of the selected media, including spelling, grammar, punctuation and AP Style?
What’s important for the readers
- The basic information: Does the release cover the who, what, when, where, why and how?
- Answers to other key questions: Does the release anticipate and answer other relevant reader questions, such as cost, availability and where to get more information?
- Clear, focused writing: Is the release written in a way that the readers can easily understand what you’re trying to say? Not only do you need to know your audience, you need to know the media’s audience as well. If you know that, you’ll save a lot of time and effort.
What’s important for the client
- Being presented in the best possible light: Does the information in the release reflect well on the client? If it does, be careful not to overdo it; you’ll lose credibility with the other audiences. If it doesn’t reflect well, leave it out or turn it into an opportunity to become a benefit.
- “Quote the boss”: Does the release quote a person with authority who can offer meaningful statements, including opinion, to clarify and reinforce the message? If you have room for comments from customers and other stakeholders, great. But “the boss” comes first.
- Support for the company message: Does the release support the client’s important message? Find a way—maybe in the boss’s quotes—to reinforce the value message behind the announcement.
And what if you, like many others these days, are bypassing traditional media and posting releases only on your website? Put your readers first. Avoid the trap of hyping your client just because the controls are off.
You still need the credibility that comes with self-restraint because, in the end, readers know best.
How to stand out in the inbox
Long gone are the days when news releases were stuffed in an envelope and sent to the media. But it’s still a challenge to get the media’s gatekeepers to open your digital mail. Here are a few tips to make sure your email release gets a read:
- Make sure your subject line conveys news interestingly, accurately and completely. Note in the subject line that it’s a news release, as in “NEWS RELEASE: Governor to hold town hall Monday.”
- Having a credible name in the sender line also can help. Get to know your media contacts so that when they see your name, or your company’s name, they realize that it’s not just another candidate for the trash bin.
- Give the media options on handling your release. Put it in the text of the email, attach it in a file and post it on your website, along with other information that would otherwise overload the email.
- Try to hold the email to one screen. If you can’t, make sure that the most important information shows up first, and that includes a strong, newsy headline.
- Create hyperlinks in your text. There’s a good chance the release will be posted on the media’s website as well as in its print or broadcast version.
- Make it easy to read on the screen by writing in short sentences and short paragraphs. Typographical devices such as bullets, subheads and occasional bold or italic type can create visual interest.
This story has been previously published on NewsLab.org.
Michael Tonos is the director of NewsLab.org and an instructional assistant professor at the University of Mississippi. He has been managing editor and executive editor of The Sun Herald on the Mississippi Gulf Coast as well as managing editor at the Vicksburg Post and Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal. He also has worked in public relations and media relations as owner of JMT Consulting, which he started in 2000.