How to write perfect press releases every time

Posted by Geoff Hill on 9 Apr, 2014
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Ken McGaffin and Geoff Hill introduce their free Press Release guide

It was a quiet night in the editor’s office, and Edward D Rhinebeck III, known to his many friends and his few enemies as Ed the Ed, sat happily reading the next day’s splash.

“Sex change pastor in mercy dash to White House,” he chuckled. “Perfect. It’s got everything.”

Suddenly, a frenzied figure burst through the door brandishing an ax.

“This is the last time you ignore my press releases, Ed. Say goodnight, sucker!” he screamed.

It was Mark A Teer, who bombarded Ed the Ed daily with press releases. Releases that were immediately sent unread, unused, unwanted and unloved, to Ed’s trash basket.

Slowly, Ed removed his unlit cigar and placed it in an ashtray that hadn’t been used since smoking was made a federal offence. Then he leaned back in his chair and installed his thumbs behind a pair of substantial red braces.

Ed, put down that ax and keep your hands where I can see them

He knew the best way to deal with a maniac was to keep calm, listen and then talk himself out of the situation.

After all, he’d dealt with too many crazed newspaper owners to feel threatened by a crazed axman.

“Mark, let me be as blunt as I hope that ax is. There are only two ways you can get yourself in this paper.”

“Oh?” said Mark, the ax trembling above his head.

“One, you can attack me and get on tomorrow’s front page for the first and last time. Or you can put the ax down and let me tell you how you to get your releases published – here, there, everywhere and always.”

For a moment, time stood still. Then Mark slowly lowered the ax. And his head.

“I’m sorry, Ed. I didn’t really want to attack you. It’s just…so frustrating, is all.”

Carol’s finest java – the solution to everything

“I get it. Let’s fix it,” said Ed, then picked up the phone to his secretary. “Carol, two cups of your finest java, if you will. The extra strong kind.”

With two mugs of Carol’s extra strong coffee, and a plate of her home-made choc chunk cookies at no extra charge sitting on the desk, Ed and Mark sat facing each other.

Journalists need you – more than ever

“OK,” said Ed. “Let’s start with the good news. Journalists need good stories from people like you more than ever.

“Why? Because the recession has shrunk newspaper income in the US by a third. Because newspapers aren’t run by guys like me any more. They’re run by bean counters for shareholders. And those shareholders want their bucks back. And the easiest way to do that is to get rid of journalists.”

He got up and went to the glass wall of his office looking out over a newsroom in which half a dozen reporters tried, and failed, to occupy four dozen desks.

“See that? Every one of those used to be full. Same all over. The number of journalists in the US today is the lowest since records began. Which means those guys out there are worked to death.”

Mark: Is that why they don’t read my press releases?

Ed: No. They’ve stopped reading your releases because YOUR releases give them MORE work to do, not less.

Your releases must be good to go first time. My guys just don’t have time to work out what your story is all about. If you’re not clear, they’re not going to rewrite it for you, they’re going to dump them.

Press releases received – 300. Press releases used – one

Want to guess how many press releases I get on an average day?

Mark: I dunno. Couple of dozen?

Ed: I wish. Two or three hundred. Wanna guess how many I use? One. On a good day. Pretty soon, we get to hate the folks who bombard us with news that isn’t news. Pretty soon after that, we stop even reading their releases.

And that, my ax-wielding friend is how we treat your releases.

Mark: So how do I get to be one of the good guys – guys whose press releases you actually read?

 

Grab that phone – and become one of the good guys

 

Ed: The good guys are the ones who send me very few releases, but make sure they’ve got something that will get our readers excited. And the guys who pick up the phone before they send the release to see if I even want it.

Mark: Really? I always worry that I’m wasting a journalist’s time bugging them on the phone, so I just send releases out to everyone and hope for the best.

Ed: There are two types of journalists in this business – journalists who like getting phone calls and those that don’t. You’ve got to find out what the journalist you’re pitching to likes.

Ed: Me, I’m a phone man. So pick up the phone and talk to me. For everyone else, find out who deals with the subject and find out how they like to be contacted. Tell them who you are, give them a quick spiel, ask if they want the release. If they don’t, you’ve saved you and them a waste of time. If they do, you’ve started a relationship with them that’ll work for both of you. See, Mark, contrary to popular opinion, journalists are people too. We like people we can talk to. So pick up the phone. Takes seconds, saves hours.

 

A great press release – Ed’s simple secret

Mark: OK, I get it. So, er, this may be a stupid question, but what’s your secret of a great press release?

Ed: Mark, there are no stupid questions. Only stupid answers. The first secret is so simple it’s laughable: make sure your news is news.

Mark: That’s one I know. But it’s a tough one if you’re marketing for a John Doe who thinks that every time they go to the john, it’s a news story.

Ed: Sure. But if I get 10 press releases a day from you about John Doe going to the john, John Doe will never get in the paper. Even when he has a real story.

On the other hand, people who send me a great release only when they know they’ve got a story get my immediate attention. I had a great contact once in a national tourist board who only sent me occasional releases. Every one of her releases became a major spread. Every single one.

Mark: Impressive. But let me be brutally honest, my job is to get publicity for the firm and it’s attacking me. I don’t really know what newsworthy means.

 

Why a dead Greek philosopher is your new best friend

Ed: Ever heard of Aristotle?

Mark: Didn’t he pitch for the Yankees?

Ed: Miracle if he did, since he died over 2,000 years ago. What he did pitch was this idea: that all great stories have an introduction, a conflict and a resolution. Right then, right today. Tell you what: I need to take the evening news conference with the guys. How about you sit down with Carol for 30 minutes and flick through the newsfeeds and news sites. She’s got a great eye for news and she’ll show you exactly what I mean. Find Aristotle.

When you’re done, the conference will be over and we’ll have a look at what you’ve found.

A half hour later, Mark returned.

Mark: Wow, I saw the news in a new way - Aristotle everywhere. Every news story I looked at had an introduction, a conflict and a resolution: I can’t believe I didn’t see it before.

On the BBC, I found this story,  “Wall Street Boss Was Glad To Be Sacked”.

The intro tells us about the most powerful woman on Wall Street...

The conflict is between her and a chief executive who is determined to force her out...

The resolution is that her sacking led her to a new career, running a membership organization with more that 30,000 paying subscribers from 130 countries.

Ed: Yes, that’s a classic. What else did you find?

Mark: The next is a little more run-of-the-mill but it caught my eye because I grew up on a farm. It’s a great, visual story about a traditional creamery in Washington State embracing new technology: Not your grandmother’s milkman

The intro tells us about the state of farming in Washington…

The conflict is between traditional milk delivery and the new technology that has made such a service obsolete…

The resolution is a creamery that spent years learning about the new technology beast, then turned that to its advantage and reintroduced a delivery service enhanced by technology.

 Ed: It’s a simple story told very well – I could do with one of those today after that conference.

Mark: And one thing I would never do is bring my personal story to a news piece. Yet on Inc. Magazine, I found one of the most inspiring business stories I’ve read.

It’s told in video on the Inc. Magazine site by Philip James, founder of the online wine retailer Lot18. And it’s not even about the business, it’s his personal story, “How a Disaster on Everest Inspired an Entrepreneur”.

The intro is set in James’s office where we get a video interview…

Up high on Everest, a colleague is swept away and breaks his leg. The conflict is simply a story of survival. Can James help his friend survive against all the odds…

The resolution comes five days later when he manages to bring his colleague to safety and subsequently in the great insights he gained into entrepreneurial survival.

Ed: Yes, Inc. Magazine has a great storytelling tradition – and like all of us in the traditional media, we’re being pushed to embrace video as well as print. Boy do we need help.

Mark: I wrote all these down and more. The conflict and resolution ones were stuff like corruption exposed, little guy beats odds, mom survives car smash, small town pulls together after flood – they all had newsworthiness, drama, localness, topicality, oddness or human interest.

 

Save little Jimmy! People, not policies

Ed: Now you’re getting it. And human interest means people, not policies. See that story on our page 3?

Mark: The one saying: “Mom – only you can save little Jimmy?"

Ed: That’s the one. That came from a health board warning for kids to get their flu injections before winter. And the head of the board’s press office is an ex-reporter. Knows his stuff. His release could have had an intro saying: Children may be at risk without flu jabs, health chiefs warned last night.

But what he gave me was this: a headline saying Only you can save little Jimmy, a low-resolution pic of a happy mom cuddling a kid at the flu clinic, links to high-res photos at the end of the story, and best of all, an intro which said this:

“Little Jimmy Smith may not live to see another Christmas – because his mom won’t take the morning off.

“That’s all the time it takes for a child to get a life-saving flu vaccine, yet top doctors warned last night that workaholic parents are putting their children’s lives at risk.”

Mark: Inspired.

Ed: Absolutely. Which brings me to a biggie: That’s the sort of killer intro that will grab anyone’s attention. And today you need killer intros to grab the attention of journalists, and journalists need them to grab the attention of readers, more than ever.

 

This article is part one of Geoff and Ken’s FREE Guide, “How to Write Perfect Press Releases Every Time” that includes: 

  • The Killer Intro Nails It Every Time
  • Keywords Are Words That Carry Meaning.

Download your free 28-page PDF here: “How to Write Perfect Press Releases Every Time

And next week Wordtracker will be offering an exclusive pre-launch offer on Geoff and Ken’s new video course, ‘The Blarney Stone’ that tells you everything you need to know about online public relations.

About the Authors:

Geoff Hill is an award-winning journalist and the author of nine best selling and critically acclaimed books, including novels, travel books and accounts of epic motorbike trips. He's either won or been shortlisted for a UK travel writer of the year award nine times, as well as winning European and World travel writer of the year awards. Check out his profile on Amazon.com.

Ken McGaffin served as CMO of Wordtracker for 7 years and his work has been covered in SearchEngineWatch.com, New York Times, BBC, Financial Times, Marketing Week, Huffington Post, and many other publications. He blogs and provides training at LinkingMatters.com.

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