by Deb McAlister-Holland
Long ago, in an office less than three miles from the one I am in today, I wrote my first press release on an IBM Selectric typewriter. The goal was simple: to persuade a reporter (radio, TV, or print) to take one or more of the sentences in the press release and include it in a story they were creating, or to get them to arrange an interview with my client.
The release was ephemeral and disposable. We hoped that the small number of journalists who got it (via fax, postal mail, hand-delivered as part of a printed press kit, or sent via newswire through a press release distribution service) might read it, but we knew it wouldn’t be saved more than a few days.
Back then, no one thought that there would ever be a time when a press release would be read by anyone other than a reporter or editor. The idea that a current or prospective customer would ever see a company press release, or that there would be a public archive (like the search engines) that could find a press release months or years after its creation simply never occurred to us.
Over the intervening years, technology has done more than simply change the way that PR people send releases out. They’ve changed the audience for press releases, too. Today, there are three audiences for press releases:
- Journalists/bloggers/editors: people who can republish the information or use it to contact you as a potential source.
- The people searching for your business and its products or services: current and prospective customers, investors, business partners.
- The search engines that find online content and deliver it to the first two groups: Google, Yahoo, Bing, etc.
Some things haven’t changed. A press release still consists of the same six basic components:
- Summary or abstract
- Dateline and lead sentence
- Boilerplate statement (who the company is, what it does, and how and where to find it)
- Contact information
In the old days, we used to say that there was no guarantee with PR, and that most press releases were simply useful to “get the name in front of journalists so that when they’re looking for a source in our industry, they’ll think of us.” Now, if you’re a half-decent writer, you can guarantee results with a press release — at least you can guarantee that your press release will be searchable, and that over time, people interestd in your products or services can find it.
While many of the wire services now have deals with online media to publish the releases they carry, there’s still no guarantee that a press release will result in online, print, or broadcast media coverage.
That’s ok by me, because Google never forgets. And once something is in the index, it can (and usually will) be found. That’s why writing a keyword optimized release and posting it on your own website is the first step, and using a reputable press release distribution service is the second.
Recently, Miranda Tan (Founder & CEO of the MyPRGenie news distribution service) asked me for a list of press release writing tips that could be included in a webinar where we’re both speaking. I was flattered when she said that the results this blog gets for press releases sent through the service are above average because the releases are well written.
If I am good at writing press releases, it’s because Dallas PR pioneer Helen Holmes drilled five rules about press release writing into me all those years ago. Her rules were:
- Grab attention in the headline and first sentence. Your headline, summary, and first paragraph have to clarify WHY your reader should care about what you have to say and grant you the favor of reading the rest of your document. Use action verbs, and treat it as a teaser to invite the reader to dive deeper into your content.
- Identify the source of the information clearly. Do it more than once, to increase the likelihood that your company and brand name will get used if someone uses the content.
- Write professionally. Avoid hype, slang, buzzwords, grammar and spelling errors. And leave the exclamation points out of a press release.
- Use the client’s name correctly. In today’s parlance, that means using the company’s trademarks and brand names correctly (and often), and using SEO-optimized language that gets the company’s keywords into the document to make it easier for the search engines to find and index it. It also means adding the right hyperlinks — and spelling out the URL at least once (usually in the boilerplate).
- Don’t give away all the secrets. Helen’s firmly held belief was that getting people interested in learning more was the purpose fo the release. We weren’t supposed to tell them everything in a single document. Today, one of the primary purposes of a press release is to provide a way to link back to your website where readers can get all the details and take action (buy, download, schedule, etc.) If you give away all the information int he press release, there’s no reason for readers to click through.
Over the years, I’ve added three more rules to Helen’s original five.
- Write short, great headlines. Google will only display a 60-character headline, Yahoo! displays only 120 characters. So a three-line headline won’t do much good online. Neither will a headline that’s boring. Use action words, questions, puns, and memorable phrases. The headline has to be short, punchy, and memorable — it’s the most important part of your release.
- Supplement your copy with multimedia. Use hyperlinks and multimedia files (images, video, links, audio, and other supplemental material) to promote both your website and your important keywords. Since most releases today are delivered by an online service, supplemented via email campaigns, this is more important than ever. (Note: The rule of thumb is to use one hyperlink per 100 words of text. Since press releases are typically 300-800 words in length — and shorter is better than longer — this means 2-3 links per release.)
- Avoid rookie mistakes. Mistakes (typos, grammar errors, too much hype or fluff) make you and your company look bad. Recently, someone I respect suggested sending out a “blind” press release announcing a deal. He even wrote the draft release. (He’s a great marketing guy, but PR was never his primary job.) The suggested release began, “Company A is pleased to announce that we have signed a multi-million deal with a large national company in the (blank) industry to provide our award-winning services!” Personal pronouns (you, I, we, us, our) have no place in a press release outside of quoted statements — and the fluffy language of the draft combines with the fact that the claimed customer isn’t named and hadn’t given permission for the release to put this suggested release firmly into the category of “PR don’t”.
I still can’t guarantee that a press release will result in media coverage, but I can promise that following the eight simple rules outlined here will guarantee results, because it will provide a searchable article that will drive traffic now and into the future. My old boss and mentor might not recognize the technology we use today, but she’d certainly agree with the outcome.