In 15 years’ writing and editing for national titles like the Guardian, I’ve seen every manner of press release: the good, the bad and the downright awful. But it’s not the real stinkers that frustrate me (they go straight to the trash), it’s the one that look promising, but fail to deliver due to a small mistake or oversight. These generally wind up in the ‘I’ll take another look at that later’ folder and – you’ve guessed it – almost never see the light of day.
With that in mind, here’s five common press release writing mistakes (and how to avoid them).
1. Trying to be clever
Most journalists get hundreds of press releases every day. So if you want yours to stand out, it needs an attention-grabbing headline and email subject header. Labelling your email “story idea” is far more compelling than “press release”, as is a concise one-linerthat summarises your idea. And don’t be tempted to use puns or wordplay. For example, whilst the headline “App kicks off the new football season” might sound like a clever way to introduce your client’s new football app, it won’t help a busy journalist understand your story. Keep it simple and direct.
2. Burying your story at the bottom of your press release
If you’re introducing a new product or service, it’s tempting to outline the background in the opening paragraphs of your release. But most journalists will make a decision on whether they’re interested within the first few lines. Start with your top line (ideally summarised in ten words or less) and you’ll have a much better chance of grabbing attention. You can always fill in the background later.
3. Using ‘beige’ quotes
Many of the press releases I receive contain quotes that simply give information, saying things like: “Over the next five years, we will invest 5m to build 500,000 new homes in East London.” Include that information in your press release, by all means, but use your quotes for insight or opinion. For example: “We’re not just building houses – we’re changing lives, providing safe places for children to play, new business opportunities in the area and creating a little haven of calm in the East End of London.” Instantly more engaging.
4. Writing too much
With so much information out there competing for attention, you can’t afford to waste words. If you can’t get your story onto a side of A4, you haven’t nailed your top line.
5. Writing a press release at all
When a journalist sees a press release, they generally assume it has been sent elsewhere – including rival media outlets. Not only does this suggest your story isn’t an exclusive, it also implies you haven’t thought about the unique needs of their publication and programme you’re pitching to, which is why a tailored email pitch – or phone call – can be much more effective.
I’ve seen many good stories get overlooked simply because it was pitched in a press release. Don’t let it happen to yours.
Janet Murray is a journalist, PR coach and author of the book: Your Press Release Is Breaking My Heart: A Totally Unconventional Guide To Selling Your Story In The Media
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