Come to The Dark Side: Tips on Writing Press Releases

Even Luke Skywalker was tempted by The Dark Side and, at some point in their careers, most reporters and writers will be, too.

“Star Wars” analogies aside, there are many reasons to learn how to write press releases, even if you never do paid public relations work.  Knowing how to write an effective press release can come in handy for the small business owner who wants to get the word out about her company, for organizers of charity events and other fundraising efforts, or for authors and artists who want to publicize their newest self-published book or other work. And, while it can feel odd at first to toot your own horn and bang your own drum, there’s really nothing wrong with being your own one-man band when you’ve got something newsworthy or unique to share.

With that in mind, here are a few tips on how to write an effective press release.

Good Press Releases:

  • are newsworthy.
  • have an attention-getting headline and lead.
  • are accurate, objective, and contain sources for follow-up calls and contacts.
  • take into account impact on the public and classic news values including proximity and timeliness.

So, what can you do to generate a newsworthy press release?

  • emphasize ties with current events
  • conduct a survey
  • issue a report
  • interview a celebrity
  • tie in with a holiday
  • stage a special event
  • organize a tour
  • adapt national reports for the local market
  • hold a contest
  • address a controversy

Once you’ve got something newsworthy to write about:

  • identify your audience and tailor your writing. Would an editor at the local newspaper be interested, or is your news better suited for a trade magazine that specializes on covering your industry?
  • decide whether the release will be news oriented or feature oriented. Are you holding a meatball eating contest or did you just release a blockbuster new product that will double the size of your workforce? Your writing style should reflect the content of the release.
  • write an attention-getting headline, then identify the theme and put it in the lead. Your reader should know immediately what your release is about.
  • include information in the body of the release to support the theme and weave in lots of strong quotes from sources. Even if a reporter develops his or her own story from a press release, these quotes will sometimes be used word for word, making them a great way to get your message out.
  • take the time to send your release to the right person. Don’t just send your press release to the generic email address listed on a newspaper, television station, or magazine’s contact page. Find the address of a specific editor or reporter and send your release directly. That being said, make sure your release is actually worth reading. If it is, you are likely to at least garner some respect for your company or cause, even if you don’t generate positive publicity.

I can say from personal experience that these tips really work. I’ve written or edited a number of press releases on a volunteer basis for everything from my fiance’s country band to a friend’s non-profit wine bar, and each release has generated multiple stories. This semester, some of my students found similar success when their releases resulted in stories or even ran verbatim in the local daily newspaper.

So, feel free to explore The Dark Side, because it might not be so bad after all.


The Hunger Games — Supersized

In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen’s idea of a good meal might be a stew of rabbits and the root vegetable that bears her name. A Reaping Day feast could even include a good loaf of bread from the town bakery and a small chunk of her sister’s homemade goat cheese. Fancier fare is reserved for those in the Capitol and, of course, the unlucky tributes chosen to compete in the Games. Indeed, on the train to the Capitol, Katniss’s companions warn her not to eat the rich offerings too quickly since she isn’t conditioned to consume so much fat, salt, and sugar in a single sitting.

If only that were true for most Americans. Maybe then, fans who voted for their favorite Hunger Games– inspired recipes and the judging panel at the San Jose Mercury News that winnowed down their picks wouldn’t have selected rich recipes that represent Reaping Day and the fight-to-the-death spectacle that follows.

The story’s proposed Hunger Games movie day menu of green broth that tastes like springtime, lamb stew with plums and cranberries, and goat cheese and herb bread weighs in at 1,235 calories a serving. Even before factoring in the theater-sized box of Raisinettes, that’s close to the recommended daily intake for a girl  like Katniss. For someone used to hunting, foraging, or going without, eating that feast would surely induce a vomiting episode worthy of its own scene in Supersize Me.

Instead, I’d guess that if the fictional heroine of The Hunger Games could sit down to a meal with Suzanne Collins, the writer who created her, they’d choose something more like this menu and skip the trip to the Capitol  — and its well-appointed lavatories — all together.

A Letter to Stephen Colbert About Joseph Kony

KONY 2012 Video

Like so many other bloggers today, I want to highlight KONY 2012, a film produced by the organization Invisible Children. The 30-minute documentary aims to make Joseph Kony, leader of the African Lord’s Resistance Army, so famous that he can no longer evade arrest by the International Criminal Court on charges brought in 2005. Those allegations include “brainwashing countless children across northern Uganda, turning the girls into sex slaves and the boys into prepubescent killers,” according to The New York Times Topics Page that covers him.

After discussing Kony and the film  with my students in a media ethics class this morning, this is the letter I would write to television host Stephen Colbert. Feel free to use parts of it in a letter in your own missive to the Comedy Central host, one of 20 “culturemakers” the film urges people to write directly to encourage action.

Dear Mr. Colbert:

Walter Cronkite‘s personal views about the Vietnam War are widely credited with turning public opinion against the conflict in the late 1960s. To be sure, those were different times.

You are probably familiar with surveys from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press that found viewers of your program and “The Daily Show” to be better informed than those who got their news from more-traditional news outlets like Cronkite’s. That same group found that “in 2010, for the first time, the internet has surpassed television as the main source of national and international news for people younger than 30.”

Given those findings, it’s no surprise that you were identified by the KONY 2012 social media campaign as one of 20 “culturemakers” capable of driving news and policy. I’m sure you’ve seen the film at the center of the movement by now. It’s a 30-minute documentary that aims to make Joseph Kony, leader of the African Lord’s Resistance Army, so famous that he can no longer evade arrest on war crimes charges brought by the International Criminal Court in 2005. Those allegations include “brainwashing countless children across northern Uganda, turning the girls into sex slaves and the boys into prepubescent killers,” according to The New York Times.

Although none of the 20 American students in my 8 a.m. college media ethics course seemed to have ever read a Times story about Kony, I would say almost all of them had at least one link to the video in their Facebook queue by the time class met this morning. I would also guess that some of them — and thousands of college students like them — emailed you today.

As a former newspaper reporter, I could lament that it took a social media campaign to draw worldwide attention to a brutal rebel leader who has been covered extensively by traditional media outlets for years. Instead, I will post this letter on my own blog and Facebook page and encourage others to write one like it so they and, hopefully, you can change the world.

After all, you are their Walter Cronkite.


Charlene Oldham

Saint Louis, Missouri

I always knew I was meant to write for SNL’s “Weekend Update”

I’m glad I wasn’t the only one to find the cover of Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit edition visually disturbing. When the address label is more than ample to cover the bottom of the swimsuit on cover model Kate Upton, it’s just too darn small. Oh well, guess that’s one more reason to be thankful that spring training is underway and sports photographers and reporters will be otherwise occupied once again. Check out what SNL had to say around minute 33 of this week’s broadcast.