So, you’ve finally landed a freelance writing client.
Hooray for you.
But, they want you to write something you’ve never done before…a press release. You told them, “Sure,” but you really don’t even know what it is. Now you’re stuck.
A press release is an article that serves as an advertisement to media outlets.
Your client wants you to write something you’ve never done before…a press release.
Where journalists have a news outlet and need a story, publicists have a story and need a news outlet. Your press release will be an article aimed at the journalist, in hopes that they would want to run the story.
To understand how to write a press release, you will first need to know how it will be used. When a journalist decides to use a press release, they have a couple of different options.
The easiest – and most common – is to essentially copy and paste your press release into their publication. But, they can also use the information and the contacts you provide as a springboard to do their own unique story. This is why press releases always include contact and follow-up information.
The reporter may also opt to do a little of both. They can use bits and pieces of your release, and then follow up with a little bit of their own research.
The tone of your release needs be reader-friendly enough to be pasted into a publication, but also professional enough to pass through an editor’s filters for “newsworthiness.”
Inverted Pyramid Style
Press releases, like most news articles, are written in inverted pyramid style. The most important information is written first, slowly descending to the least important information. They are written this way for two reasons.
The first is the reader’s limited attention span. Most people don’t take the time to read a whole article.
Instead, they read the headline, skim the first paragraph or two, and then move on. Journalists must write in a way that they can still get their point across, even if all they have are a few seconds with their reader.
Press releases, like most news articles, are written in inverted pyramid style.
The other is ad space. This had more to do with the days of primarily print publications, but in an era of web advertising, it still applies.
Advertising is king.
It’s what pays the bills. When the advertising department sells an ad, it runs. No matter what.
If your story is in the way, the layout department may have to make your piece smaller. Layout people aren’t editors. They don’t have time to wade through your story.
Instead, the writers write them in such a way, that the layout department can freely cut content from the bottom, and the piece will still make sense.
As a freelance writer assigned a press release, this may not seem to apply to you. But, remember, your client ultimately wants this story to run in every news outlet in town. The more it sounds like a finished article, the more likely a news outlet is to run it.
The introductory paragraph to a news article is called a lead.
A lead is the entire story in twenty-five words or less. It is often the hardest to write, but once you get it written, it’s all downhill from there.
The lead sets the tone for your story, and the piece will fall naturally and easily after that. In a press release, you have a little bit of leeway to start with an attention grabbing sentence or two. After that, you need to get directly to your lead.
A lead is the entire story in twenty-five words or less.
To write a lead, first take out a separate sheet of paper.
Write down the following questions: Who, What, Where, When, Why, How.
Next to each question, write down the answer for your story. What is happening? Who is doing it? Where are they doing it? When will/did it occur?
Not all of the questions will be relevant to every story. Figuring out which ones apply to your piece is an important step. Once you’ve answered all the questions, cross out the irrelevant ones.
Then decide which of the remaining elements is the most important. If you have a hard time deciding, ask yourself: if your reader only had time for the first five words of your story, which of these elements would compel them to find out more?
Once you’ve identified the most important element, circle it.
This is how you will begin your sentence. Now, take the rest of your elements, and string them together in one to two sentences, totaling no more than twenty-five words.
This strict word count makes leads very tightly constructed, highly detailed sentences. It used to be custom that leads could only be one sentence. This rule has largely relaxed, and you can now break it into two if necessary.
After the lead, news articles usually have a short transition paragraph, and then move into a quote from one of your sources. You continue this pattern until you tell the whole story. In a press release, you have a bit more leeway.
Your goal is to advertise the organization, so your transition paragraphs can be strategically selected from the company’s marketing material.
Further, many times your quotes are made up. If you’re a publicist on staff with an organization, your quotes will be coming from your boss.
You likely know their speech patterns, and the message they want to get out overall. It’s simpler to just write a quote for them, and get them to approve it. If you are writing your own quotes, this will give you a lot more freedom in how you structure the piece.
Your transition paragraphs can be strategically selected from the company’s marketing material.
But as a freelancer, avoid this trick unless you know the client well. An e-mail interview of 3-5 questions will usually get good quotes. One or two good quotes are all you need anyway. If the reporter wants more, they can follow up.
E-mail interviews work better for press releases. It gives the client a chance to think about their words and control their responses.
It also ensures that they are quoted correctly. The downside is, your source may not reply in time. If not, you may have to get quotes over the phone. Use a good voice recorder app on your smartphone, and put the call on speaker so that you can take manual notes as well.
A good trick is to call the source to get background information, and then tell them you would like send them an e-mail for quotes, so that they can have time to think about it. Then send it within a minute or two of ending the call. They will usually respond pretty quickly.
Once you have told the story, your press release is going to end with a boilerplate.
This is a stock paragraph or two talking about the organization and giving contact information. The purpose of public relations is to get an organization’s name out there. All of the events, media drives etc, are just a hook. It’s really about advertising the organization.
The boilerplate lets the reader know who the organization is and what they do. This can largely be taken from the organization’s website or marketing material.
It must intrigue the reader and inspire them to be customers, but it should read like facts, and not advertising. It’s a tricky balance. You only need to write the boilerplate once, as you will use the same boilerplate for every press release for that organization.
Length and Format
A press release will ultimately turn into a web article. Web articles are generally 600-800 words in length. This is a good overall rule of thumb, but as with all things, it all depends on your client.
Some releases can be as small as 350 words, or as long as 1,000 words.
The format of a press release depends on the organization. In print, it will usually be sent out on a letterhead, with the contact information for the organization or public relations firm in a heading on the first page.
In e-mail, it will be sent out in the e-mail body much the same way. Focus on the content, and ask the client about formatting once you are done.
Now, it’s your turn – have had a press release writing gig? Did you find them easy or a challenge to write?