Breaking through the newsroom clutter: How to get your news release noticed
In 2005, the New York Times stated that it received up to 7,000 news releases every day. In Canada, some daily papers report receiving up to 1,500 news releases per day by mail, courier, and email. Considering these staggering statistics, it's easy to see how many news releases get tossed, or simply scanned within three to five seconds to determine if it's newsworthy. If you're working for a nonprofit in Canada, the key is to understand how to write the most effective news release that will get the best coverage for your organization.
What makes news?
Before your fingers even hit the keyboard, know who you're dealing with. The media are cynical and many people who have worked in the industry have seen it all. They're not easily fooled, they're overworked, underpaid, and generally don't have the luxury of time to wade through a news release to see if they should cover the story. With this in mind, write your news release to be as concise as possible. Be honest, and if you find that you're struggling to find a newsworthy angle, chances are you shouldn't be writing a news release.
So, what makes news? What gets your organization on the front page? Here's a list of the most common story angles that will be of interest to many news outlets:
- Conflict / controversy
- Surprise / novelty
- Trends (changes that will be news next week)
- Experts (pros in their field, their opinions & how they work)
- Substance (have something important to say)
- Issues of the: heart / head / pocketbook
If your news release falls into any of these categories — that's your angle — and, chances are you'll have a better opportunity of landing on an editor's desk, as opposed to an editor's recycling bin.
Be aware that the sole purpose of your news release is to stimulate a writer, or an editor, to cover your story. Know the audience that every news outlet caters to. Ask yourself if your story would realistically be of interest to their audience. I've seen many organizations send blanket news releases to every news outlet in their city, when in most cases several of the outlets they're soliciting would never cover the story. All this does is waste your time and give your organization a bad name in many newsrooms. And never, ever, send out a news release "just because". Make sure it falls into one of the categories above. The three main reasons news releases are not used by media:
- Poorly written
- Rarely localized
- Not newsworthy
The Five Ws
When the time comes to write your release focus on the Five Ws (What? Who? Where When? Why?). This is a good guide to keep your release focused. Remember, your job is to entice a writer or editor to cover your story. If they're interested, they'll contact you with any questions or background material they require. There's no need to get into this in your release. (Before sending out a news release, make sure you have background materials ready to go if the media requests it. These include: bios, backgrounders and photos.)
Use what's called the Inverted Pyramid Style to write your release. Unlike a book where everything is wrapped up in the end, your release is the opposite and starts with all the juicy details right out of the gates. Here's an outline:
This is your most critical element and should answer the 5 Five Ws (must at least include who, what, and when). Ask yourself: What is this about? If a lead is too long or convoluted, it should be re-written. Make sure your lead answers the critical questions and highlights pertinent facts quickly without a lot of extra words.
This explains the lead and gives the details and facts. Includes the remaining Ws and how to round out the story.
End: Least important info (e.g. where to buy tickets) and a boilerplate on your organization (a boilerplate is a brief description of your organization).
Format is everything
Also make sure your news release is properly formatted. I won't get into that here (simply Google Press Release Format); just make sure it's professional. It makes the media's job easier and it's more likely they'll read it.
A good rule of thumb is to keep your release to one page. Two pages are rare and should be avoided. Make sure to use concise language, don't be overly descriptive in your writing, and use short sentences and short paragraphs. Where possible, use quotes. This gives more info; just remember to not re-state the facts. Generally, quotes are written by the writer, and then approved by the person being quoted. Also, always write in the third person. This allows you to state facts as writing in the first person makes it sound like an opinion. And perhaps most importantly, you must be objective. Your news release should not be influenced by feelings or personal bias.
Build your relationships
The final step in the news release process is about building relationships with the media. If you're working in a communications position for a non-profit organization, make a point of getting to know the media contacts that can help you get your message across.
When I first started working in PR, I made a list of the key media contacts in my area and contacted them. Nothing too overstated, just a brief introduction to let them know that I was new and that I wanted to know the best way to contact them and what their deadlines were. I found this went a long way because in some cases, when I finally had to solicit them with a news release, they remembered who I was and would read my release.
Following up with media is a good practice to get into as well. Not only does it ensure that they received your release, it helps to build relationships over time. I would usually wait a day or two then follow up with a quick phone call to see if they received my release, and if they needed any more info. I found this was also a good opportunity to offer any background material.
Overall, if you understand where the media is coming from and what the challenges are in their jobs, you'll have a much better chance of getting coverage than your peers. If the news releases coming from your organization are consistently professional looking, concise, and relevant, they'll at least get a look when they arrive in an editor's inbox, and that's half the battle. By building and maintaining a good relationship with the key media contacts in your market, you'll be able to provide the media with some great news stories which will benefit your organization for years to come.
Ted Peterson is a writer, currently working in the Development Office at the University of British Columbia. Prior to his life on campus, Ted was a senior writer for a variety of Vancouver radio stations, and later worked in media relations for a public relations agency.