PR Power: How to Write a Killer Press Release

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I'm what we in the business (the "business" being journalism) call a poacher turned gamekeeper -- that is, a journalist turned press officer. As a reporter I spent a huge part of my day sifting through a slush pile of press releases, all sent out by eager business owners desperate to get some publicity for their latest project. As a press officer, I was the one writing the press releases and trying desperately to get them published.

Quite apart from leaving me with some pretty good conversation openers, it left me with a good understanding of what kind of story makes the news, and what kind of press release gets filed straight under "bin". Here's how to make sure your press release is one of the good ones...

1. Get your story straight

Before you even think about writing a press release, you need to make sure you have the right story. The fact that you've just started a business isn't a good story. Trust me on this. At the last newspaper I worked on, I lost count of the number of press releases we received, which basically boiled down to, "Hey! Guess what! I started a business!" Well, so did a lot of people. If you want your press release to work, you're going to have to find an "angle" that your target publication will be interested in. There are various different ways to do this:

- Tell a strange/funny/touching story about how your business started, or how you helped one of your customers.

- Run a competition, offering your products or services as a prize.

- Offer your expertise in an "ask the expert" feature or column (if your paper isn't running one, offer to write it for them)

- Conduct a survey and present your findings in the form of a press release. Sponsor a local student or organisation

- All you need to get your "angle" is a little bit of imagination. And once you have a story to tell, it's time to start selling...

2. Writing your press release

First things first, remember it's a press release you're writing, not a novel. Of course, you want to make sure you get all of the relevant facts across, but try to do it concisely. It's worth bearing in mind that the newspaper will probably re-word your release to make it fit their style or the space available in any case, so don't worry too much if you're not exactly Stephen King. Focus on your main points. Tell the reader:

Who Where Why What When How

These are the building blocks of any story: as long as you get these down, you're off to a good start. And speaking of starts...

3. Get your opening paragraph right

It's a sad fact of life that editors are overworked individuals, and their time is precious. If the opening paragraph of your press release doesn't grab them, they probably won't bother to read the rest. In newspaper journalism, the convention is to make the opening paragraph short and snappy, and to use it to sum up the story as best you can.

4. Use quotes

Quotes are more interesting to read than straight text, and if you don't include some, the journalist who receives your press release will have to find them for herself. Including a few ready-made quotes in your press release will reduce the amount of work the reporter has to do, and that will give your release a better chance of being used.

5. Include your contact information

No matter how hard you try to get it right, there will inevitably be some small point which the journalist writing your story will want to clarify, and to do that, they'll need to be able to contact you. Making things easier on the journalist, makes it easier for them to give your business some publicity.

6. Follow up!

If your press release doesn't appear in the very next issue of the newspaper you send it to, don't panic! Sometimes it can take a few weeks for a release which isn't time-sensitive to appear, but it doesn't hurt to give the paper a quick call to make sure they received it, just don't go overboard and take up too much of their precious time...

Amber McNaught is a director of Hot Igloo Productions. Hot Igloo are small business specialists, offering website design, online marketing, public relations and more. Their new press release writing service is now available - visit http://www.hotigloo.co.uk/publicrelations.htm for details.

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