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How to have an effective Press Release
What is a Press Release?
A press release is the basic communication tool for those wanting to talk to journalists. It should be short, to the point and interesting. Most press releases are one side of A4 (less if sent in an email). A proper press release will capture the story in a way that will entice the journalists to cover it. Remember you are competing with other newsworthy stories so it has to prompt the journalist to want to write about it.
Why send a press release?
It is a bid to get coverage. You either want the journalist to decide to use all the information - i.e. use the wording in the press release - or decide to elaborate on the story and follow up with interviews or doing a feature.
You should only send a press release as part of a planned media strategy. Know what it is that you want to say, what media you are approaching and what reaction do you want. Sounds reasonable yet so many people in the NHS (public health included) get it wrong. Of course, we have communications folk to help us out but it is quite common for people to shrug - "Bowel Cancer Awareness Month is coming up let's get something out" or "Our flu immunisation rates are appalling, let's improve uptake". Why would a journalist be interested in that? What is it about your story that will make them want to make space in the newspaper? These are competitive times and with news stories flying on in the wire from all around the world every minute, you've got to be interesting to push George Clooney and Kate Middleton to the side to make way for your news story that will make readers sit up and take notice.
Devising a Media Strategy
- Have a message that you want to put over and that the media will be interested in
- Make a list of the places you would like to be seen (e.g. radio shows) and relevant contacts to try to achieve it.
- Have something to send
- A strategy for following up and keeping the momentum going
- The message must be specific not general
- Has to be a story that people will want to pass onto their friends
- Ask yourself, what is newsworthy about this project/message?
What do Journalists Look for?
Journalists are busy. They are surrounded by ringing telephones, inboxes exceeding limits and mountains of paper information. They are also under pressure to meet daily deadlines and be up-to-date to sell newspapers. They do not have time to wade through an essay to gleam the story. They want something, snappy, of interest to their readership and very now. This means the information you send has to capture their attention at the first glance. Another piece of advice I got (and from a journalist) is to assume that they are lazy. Make it easy for them to repeat your press release.
Capturing the Attention
1. The first paragraph is very important. It needs to include the five Ws: who, what, where, why and when. The basics of your story should be there. (Go on the assumption that the reader will not read beyond the first paragraph. Hence why you need to answer the five w questions.)
2. The remaining paragraphs need to tease out the issues of interest so that the journalist can use them to bulk out the story if published or to to use to investigate further.
3. Make sure that all spelling and grammar are correct and that your language is precise. No jargon.
4. Lay out the press release so that it is easy to read and absorb. Keep it brief - one page maximum - and avoid too much statistical detail. Use conversational English - in other words if your mother rang you and asked what your story is all about, you'd be able to answer her in two sentences and give her some gossip!
5. Have a simple but catchy headline. The headline attracts attention, it does not need to be a perfect summary of the story that follows.
6. This is obvious but often omitted. Make sure the press release is clearly referenced - the journalist needs to know who it is from and how to get in touch with the person who sent it. All contact details should be correct and make sure that you have the correct name of your correspondence.
7. Finally but most importantly, make sure the story is worth printing.
Have a Story
It seems obvious but so often overlooked. Tell a story. Have something that is memorable, resonates with people and would make them want to pass it on to others. This is why personable stories work so well - a young carer telling you how s/he copes looking after a disabled parent and the support s/he gets. This will touch the public more than a dry announcement about new carers' services. Look at the information you have and see if there is a story within. What angle could be taken?
1. Source - who is the press release from.
2. Date of release and if it is embargoed.
4. First paragraph includes the who, what, where, why and when. This should have all the basic information in case the reader gets no further.
5. Additional paragraphs which tease out what is in the first paragraph. These may be used by the journalist if space permits.
6. A quotation from the organization in question or senior manager - e.g. Director of Public Health or consultant
7. Statistics to back up or confirm your point.
8. Final paragraph telling the journalist what to do next - is there a photo opportunity? A helpline? Or telling people to see their GP if concerned about a disease or a condition.
Points to Note
- Usually press releases are cut from bottom upwards.
- Make them colourful, imaginative, easy to read and not too long.
- Use a good headline
- Brevity and clarity!
- Be immediate in its impact
- Timing! Don't send it too long before the event/seasonal public health message or it will be forgotten and don't send it too near the event or it risks being left off the news pages. Sometimes press releases are 'embargoed' - i.e. they are released a date before they can be used - e.g. measles data press release due out on a Friday may be sent to the media the day before but with an embargo not to use until the Friday.