Thursday, November 13, 2014

Making sure your press release gets read

As an editor who assigns stories to news reporters and magazine writers, I hear lots of complaints from them about press releases: they're too long, there's too much information, it's hard to find what I need in order to write about the event/follow up, blah, blah, blah.

I've also been that writer reading a long, drawn-out release while thinking "Just tell me what I need to know."

Seriously, it's a press release, not a magnum opus.

Remember, journalists are trained to write tight and follow a pretty struck structure to make sure the stories they produce are just that.

By sticking to that script, you can help make sure your news release doesn't get lost in someone's inbox or in the basket by the fax machine (trust me, every newsroom has one). Here's how:
  • Remember the five W's and the H - Of course you want to give all the wonderfully flowery and juicy detailed good stuff about your event - and you should. Just don't do it at the very top of the release. The person reading it will probably be the first to decide if the event is worth pursuing, which means you only have a few sentences to convince him/her that it is. Journalists are taught to put the pertinent info - the who, what where, when, why and how - at the top of the story (the reason is this: stories are cut from the bottom when space runs tight. If the good stuff was there, there's a good chance that no one would ever see it). Seriously, if I have to read six or seven paragraphs to find out what the heck is happening, I usually zip right on to the next release - y'know, the one behind yours.
  • Give some (but not too much) background information - If your gallery is hosting the 10th annual auction for a charity, by all means, say so. But you don't have to list every board member and sponsor in order to detail the goings on. Important to the people involved? - without a doubt - but to the writer who has a couple of other stories to vet before the Flintstone whistle blows? - not so much. Write the release with the person reading it in mind, not the people putting the event together.
  • Writers/reporters are busy - This just means that, generally speaking, the less they have to do, the better. For a calendar announcement or a short blurb in your local paper, your press release probably will run pretty close to how you wrote it as long as those five W's are there. And keep in mind that there isn't much room for descriptive adjectives in a three-line calendar listing, so eliminate the extraneous words whenever you can - or the reporter or editor most certainly will.
  • Be mindful of the event date - Hard to believe, but your release party or exhibit opening is not the only thing happening in the area. Folks involved in the planning of daily, weekly or monthly print or online publications usually put their event calendars together days, weeks or even months in advance. If you email a release the day before the event, don't be surprised if no one from your local paper shows up to cover it. The longer the time between issues, the longer the lead time needed for the events in it to be listed. Give at least two weeks for daily publications, a week for more frequent online pubs, and about two months minimum for monthly publications. Seasonal events (the Halloween shindig or Easter benefit, etc) need even more lead time, so plan accordingly.
  • Don't forget to include your contact information - Sometimes, if a writer can't make it to the big event, they might want to follow up to see how it went or to see if they can come by before or after to chat with an organizer. If you list an office phone number where no one will be until two days after the event, there's a good chance the person trying to reach you will leave that message and not look back. Remember, newspapers and online publications are all about being timely, and an event that happened a week ago just isn't.
  • Let them know if high-resolution photos are available - That teeny photo you sent with the release will not reproduce well anywhere unless it is to run the size of a postage stamp. If you are announcing a CD release, a play or a gallery exhibit opening, have some photos on standby that you can email to the media outlet (at least 300 DPI - Dots Per Inch) in case they need a photo to run with the story. If your band or sculpture pieces don't already have photos, it's never too early to find a photographer and make it happen so they are ready and waiting when you need them.
  • Don't hound the media with questions about when/if your story will run - Trust and believe that nothing gets under the skin of an editor with a million tasks on her plate more than a call from someone who sent a press release within the last 24 hours just to see if it was received. Nothing wrong with following up, but please consider the fact that she may just be too busy even to know if it was received. The general rule of thumb is this: no news is good news (they probably haven't seen it yet, which is why that lead time is so important). Editors won't always let you know if they're not interested, but they certainly will contact you if they are. Wait at least a week before you follow up with the "did you get my release?" calls, please.
  • If at first you don't succeed... - Keep trying. Just because you didn't get coverage about one event does not mean you won't get coverage on your third, 10th or 17th. Sometimes, coverage is about available writers/photographers or space - issues that have nothing to do with the event itself. Many times, the squeaky wheel gets the oil - meaning the band that always sends info out about their gigs or the gallery that never forgets to send invites to its openings will eventually get something covered. 
There aren't any sure-fire ways to guarantee your event gets covered, but following these tips could net you a better shot than not.