• Produce an effective press release
A press release is information that is communicated proactively to the media – including TV, radio and electronic publications, as well as the printed press – from which they select the elements they consider to be of interest to their publics. They will edit (or expand upon) your story to produce a broadcast item or text that they consider to be most appropriate.
When the content of a message has been decided, your objectives should be to:
- ‘Package’ it in a manner that makes it stand out from the many that are competing for journalists’ attention;
- Present the story in a way that encourages reproduction of the key points with minimal changes; and
- Make any editing as easy as possible.
Structuring a press release
The heading is the first element that addresses the journalist. A good heading is a short heading – two lines is a maximum length. Ideally, it should include an active verb, and employ vocabulary that is in common use and will appeal to readers’ curiosity or imagination.
‘Smart textiles protect their users’, NOT ‘Functionalised fibres exhibit photochromic and thermochromic properties’
Viewers, listeners and readers – and journalists! – are in a hurry. They need to be able to obtain an overview of a message almost at a glance. So, provide an introductory paragraph of two or three sentences to present the content in a nutshell, and to indicate its significance. This should answer the six basic questions – who?, what?, why?, when?, where? and how? – or as many of them as are relevant in the context.
‘Belgian (where) waste treatment company Scoribel (who) has achieved the ultimate environmental objective of converting industrial waste into a form that is 100% reusable (what) in a co-combustion process with conventional fuels for heating the kilns that produce cement clinker (how). Completed in August 2003 (when), this development has helped prevent the closure of a neighbouring cement plant, preserving valuable employment in a region facing a shortage of suitable primary raw materials for cement production (why).’
Paragraphs should be arranged in order of declining importance. A good test is to check to what extent, starting from the end of the text, paragraphs can be progressively removed without affecting the essence of the message. This equates to the simplest form of editing for a journalist seeking to fill a limited page space when working under deadline pressure.
Ensure that texts always include an acknowledgement of European Union financial support.
Adding quotations can be an effective means of making a story more lively and interesting – note that accuracy is essential when quoting third-party sources. It can also be a useful way to make points that are matters of opinion, rather than fact.
“We believe this new drug to be the most advanced in the world,” says Dr Smith.
Subheadings divide the text into blocks of ideas and thus facilitate scan reading to identify items of particular interest to the reader. They should consist of just a few words, make a specific point about the story, and ideally be benefit-oriented.
‘Markets expanding’, ‘Cost-effective composites’, ‘Knowledge for the future’
Subheadings should not be overused, and should be spread more or less evenly throughout the text – two or three would be sufficient for a typical two-page press release.
Bullet points are useful when listing a range of options or comparing related facts. They can often be helpful in reducing the amount of space needed to present a complex scenario.
Avoid paragraph numbering and other elements that will not appear on the printed page. They only give the journalist extra work in removing them.
Photographs, diagrams, graphs, tables
An attractive (and good quality) photograph greatly increases the probability that a press release will be selected for publication, particularly if it includes a human element or illustrates a striking application (space vehicle, prominent building, healthy plant growth, etc.) Where recognition of size is important in understanding the image, e.g. microelectronics, try to incorporate a reference element to indicate the scale. When supplied in electronic form, photographs should be suitable for high quality reproduction – i.e. with a resolution of at least 300 dots/inch. Always provide an explanatory caption.
Diagrams can be a convenient means of explaining a working device, plant layout, process flow, etc. However, it should be realised that space on the printed page is limited. Avoid over-complicated diagrams – and consider providing textual descriptions in the form of a caption relating to key numbers (this also simplifies the production of multilingual releases).
Graphs and tables simplify the interpretation of comparative data, but again should not be unduly complicated.
Avoid the use of extensive technical explanations and historical detail in a press release. This information may nevertheless be useful to journalists intending to write more extended stories. Where appropriate, add it as ‘Notes to editors’ at the end of the text – or even supply a separate background article, clearly labelled as such. Note that a backgrounder can often be recycled to accompany more than one press release, with periodic updating, as required. Another method is to post it on your website, and to indicate the website address in your press releases.
Press release style
Use language that you think a very large audience will understand. And bear in mind that even the editor/journalist may not be a specialist in your particular field, so avoid unnecessary scientific jargon and ‘Eurospeak’.
Where special terminology is unavoidable, add a brief explanation:
‘The size of transistors is being scaled down to just a few nanometres. A nanometre is one billionth of a metre (1 x 10-9)’
or provide a ‘human’ comparison:
‘A nanometre is around 1/80 000th of the thickness of a human hair’
If abbreviations are employed throughout a text, spell out the corresponding phrase in full the first time they are used:
‘EUROSTAT (Statistical Office of the European Communities)’;
‘DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid)’
Aim to express just one basic idea in each sentence. Keep sentences short – a maximum of 30 words is a good rule of thumb. Avoid ambiguity; minimise the use of passive verbs.
To facilitate reading, keep paragraphs short – typically two to three sentences.
- Be consistent in the use of spellings, abbreviations, units of measurement and the use of initial capital letters.
- It is advisable to employ the internationally recognised SI measurement units and their abbreviations
- Note that, in the English language, initial capitals should neither be used for the names of the sciences and other disciplines (physics, engineering…), nor for the names of the chemical elements. Their use for other generic words (states, committee…) is also to be discouraged.
- Always make use of your word-processing programme’s spelling and grammar checker.
Plan the circulation strategy
If the message is to remain topical, a press release must reach its recipients as quickly as possible. Its circulation must therefore be organised in advance. Releases may be sent by fax or email, or made available on a website – provided that the site is known to the targeted journalists, and that they visit it regularly.
As has been stated, journalists tend to have little time and work under considerable pressure. You are therefore strongly advised to make life easier for them by making every effort to ensure that information reaches them directly, rather than expecting them to search for it.
When news is also announced directly, at a press conference for example, the press release should be distributed at the place where the event takes place. It can be handed out individually, or with other documents in a complete press pack. This should not preclude a follow-up distribution, as not all of the invited journalists will necessarily attend the event.
Make use of events: if you are participating in an event such as a conference or exhibition organised by a third party, take advantage of the fact that journalists are likely to be present. Bring your press releases to hand out, and check what press facilities may be provided. Ascertain in advance whether there is a press room in which you can display your material, and what formalities are necessary to gain access. The press room can also be a good place to make new contacts and organise interviews with journalists.