In baseball, it's said that you know an umpire is top-notch when you never notice his presence. If he's doing his job, he won't call attention to himself in any way. It's much the same for the writer of a press release.
When the recipient of a press release focuses only on its content -- and not on its creation -- the writer has succeeded. With that in mind, here's how to develop a style that can help give you a big edge in placing your press releases.
1) Master News Style By Reading News Stories
The folks who write wire copy for the Associated Press are masters at presenting information without calling attention to themselves. Read all the AP wire copy you can and get a sense of the rhythm and flow of their writing.
Examine their choice of words and sentence structure (typically, they choose the simplest way of saying things) and their overall tone of solid objectivity. This is the style to which you should aspire.
2) Write a Great Lead
The lead paragraph in a press release should, theoretically, be able to stand alone as a news item. A standard news lead answers the Five W's -- Who? What? Where? When? Why? Successfully answer those five questions in one paragraph and you've summarized everything beautifully.
The new Acme X100 is drawing raves from customers, who call it the best thing to happen to the flanging industry since the X99.
Philadelphia, August 15, 2007-- Calling it a "milestone day for our industry", the Acme Company unveiled the first flanger capable of creating widgets using only solar power. According to Acme President Joe Blow, the X100 is expected to find wide use in the developing world, where access to traditional electric power is unreliable.
The Five W's are answered! Who: the Acme Company. What: theintroduction of the solar-powered X100. Where: in Philadelphia (the headquarters for our fictional company). When: August 15. And, most important, Why: for use in the developing world.
Remember this: in almost every release that's successful, what put it over the top was the answer to "Why?". You must make plain the significance of your news by answering that question succinctly and without hype!
3) Write in Third Person
Perhaps it's a silly convention, but press releases really should be written as if they're coming from an objective outsider to your company, not from within your business. Of course, the journalist knows better, but nonetheless, they expect releases to be written in the third person. In short, here's the difference between first person and third person:
=> First person: We've developed the Acme X100.It's our most advanced model ever.
=> Third person: Acme Industries has developed the X100, which a company spokesperson called its "most advanced ever"
4) Attribute All Opinions
Never flatly state an opinion. If you want to state an opinion or, as in the above example, make a claim, always attribute it to a representative of the company (which very well may end up to be you!).
Anything apart from entirely factual info (dates, store availability, product features, biographical information, etc.) should be attributed. Again, the best way to get a feel for this is to read wire copy. Start sorting out the things a reporter feels comfortable with, including without attribution and things for which he uses a named source.
5) Use the Inverted Pyramid
On the first day of Journalism 101, aspiring scribes learn about the Inverted Pyramid. Basically, it's way of organizing information so that the most important information is at the top -- the widest part of the Inverted Pyramid -- and, as you funnel down to the narrowest point, the information becomes less and less vital.
There's a good reason for this: if a reporter's 10 paragraph story gets cut to 6 paragraphs because of space considerations, the reader will still be informed of the most important news. What's cut will be background, quotes and other nonessential material.
When writing a press release, the Inverted Pyramid is equally important. First, it's the style the journalist is comfortable with and second, it assures that even if a rushed reporter can only read the first couple of paragraphs, she'll get enough info to decide whether to use the release or not.
If you bury the best part of your release in the fourth paragraph, the recipient may never make it that far.
6) Remove all "Stoppers"
A "stopper" is something that will stop a journalist in her tracks and distract her attention. Once that happens, your release is toast. The point of your press release: to present information in the least obtrusive way possible.
Consider it this way: the journalist isn't dumb -- she knows full well that you've sent her the press release for purely commercial reasons, hoping to get publicity that will make you more money.
She can live with that as long as [a] there's something in it for her (a good story) and [b] she's not reminded of your commercial desires too often. A "stopper" breaks the suspension of disbelief needed for this little dance to be successful.
It's the boom mike showing up in the frame of a movie -- once you've seen it, it's hard to convince yourself that you're really experiencing something that happened during, say, the Middle Ages. Here are some "stoppers" to avoid:
=> Clunky language. Journalists keep their language pretty simple. Long words, compound sentences and lofty, pretentious phrases are no-no's. Keep your sentences short. Don't try to present more than one idea in a paragraph. Avoid words you wouldn't use in everyday circumstances.
=> Hype and puffery. The ultimate "stopper". Confusing press release copy with advertising copy is a pervasive problem with businesspeople. Don't call yourself the greatest, the hottest, the coolest, the most unique or anything of the sort.
If you must make a claim of superiority for your product, service or company, attribute it. Acme President Joe Blow said the X100 "has the opportunity to revolutionize the industry" is much better than The revolutionary Acme X100 is the greatest industrial advance since the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk.
=> Trademark Symbols. Including TM or copyright symbols that scream, "hey, check me out! I'm a press release! I come from a business! The legal department made me include this stuff!"
The bottom line: write like a journalist, avoid the stoppers and answer the Five W's and you'll succeed!
By Bill Stoller, the "Publicity Insider"
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