How to Write Perfect Press Releases, Part 2: What you need to know about journalists before you write your release
Before you even think about choosing the story (or angle) you’re going to build your press release around, there are a few things you need to know about the media. Here’s the first – and most important – of them:
1. Journalists receive hundreds of press releases every week
Depending on the publication they’re writing for, they may even get hundreds of press releases every day. Even a junior reporter on a small weekly free sheet will spend a good part of her day ploughing through the mountain of press releases which land on her desk on in her inbox. So you’re up against some pretty stiff competition. Obviously you’re going to have to make sure your press release stands out, and grabs her attention. But how?
2. The vast majority of these press releases remain unread.
Luckily, the situation isn’t quite as desperate as it may seem. You don’t really have to compete with all of these hundreds of press releases. You only have to compete with the good ones. The reason? The rest of them go straight to that round metal filling cabinet on the floor…
Let me tell you a story. (Because we all love stories!)…
On the first newspaper I ever worked for, we received a small forest’s worth of news releases every day. It often fell to me to sift through them all and decide which were worth following up, and which were headed straight to the recycle bin. After a while, I started to notice that the press releases we received fell into roughly three groups:
* “I’ve started a new business and I want you to write about it!” - roughly 50%
* “I have a new product and I want you to write about it!” - roughly 45%
* Genuine “news” stories that we could actually use - 5%
Most of the last group came from the press office of our local council . They read our paper every week and knew what kind of story we were interested in covering. These were press releases that we had actively requested to be sent.
Most of the second group came from a huge car company (who shall remain nameless), who must have spent an absolute fortune sending us glossy photos of their cars, special presentations folders and the occasional freebie as an added “incentive” (read: bribe) for us to write about their latest car. What they hadn’t stopped to think about, however was the fact that our newspaper didn’t actually have a motoring section…
The first group – the “please write about my business” group are the ones you’re probably most interested in. We’ll come back to those later. What we can learn from the other two examples is this:
* If you want your press release to be read, you have to give the journalist the kind of news they’re interested in covering *
In order to do this, you have to actually READ their newspaper.
Back to our journalists, and the final two things you need to know about them.
3. Journalists are very, very busy
Unfortunately, the newspaper industry is similar to many other industries in that there’s a tendency to hire fewer staff than are really needed. This is bad news for journalists, who work in a highly pressurised environment anyway, with tight deadlines and constant stress – and who often find themselves doing two people’s jobs at once.
What this means for you and your press release is that the journalist you send it to will probably not have time to read it properly, and will simply scan it to see if it’s worth following up. If that first scan doesn’t grab their attention and make them think “hey, this is a good story – we need to be covering this!” they’ll file it straight into the bin.
4. The media don’t owe you anything
Here’s something that most people forget: newspaper owners are running a business too. Their business makes money by selling copies of their newspaper, and trust me, they’re in it for the money: they’re not providing a public service. When I worked on local newspapers, we would get a lot of phonecalls from people who seemed to feel that it was our duty to print the stories they gave us, whether it was about their child winning a prize at school or their business winning a new client. The problem was that as much as we’d liked to have helped these people, we were running a business. The success of that business depended on us providing news that people actually wanted to read, and, sadly, no one really wants to read about a child winning a book token or a business signing a new contract. (Unless, of course, you’re the child’s parents or the owner of the business.)
Some people (including small business owners) would become upset and even abusive when we told them we couldn’t run their story. They had totally missed the point: we didn’t owe them a story.
So, what have we learned from this insight into journalism, and how can it help you with your press release? Let’s summarise:
Target your press release to the publications that are most likely to use it.
If your business sells makeup, for example, Farmers Weekly probably WON’T want to know about it…
Make sure the subject of your press release qualifies as genuine “news”, and isn’t just a blatant attempt to advertise your business.
Ask yourself, “Would I want to read about this, if it wasn’t about me?” If the answer is no, you’re going to have to seriously re-think your angle before you even think about sitting down to write your release.