Writing a press release


16th July, 2020

How to create a press release with cut-through

We recently spoke to former Sun and Glamour Magazine journalist Anna Johnstone about how businesses can successfully use the press release. Here’s what she had to say.

More and more, businesses are trying to keep PR activities in-house.

One of the most popular ways that businesses try to get free press exposure is through sending press releases.

Press releases are statements that businesses send, often en masse, to journalists that provide writers with information they may need to build a story about their brand or operations.

If you Google “how to write a press release” you will find hundreds of near-identical press release templates.

These templates have been massively overused by businesses and PR agencies alike, causing them to lose effectiveness. This is confirmed by the finding that 52 percent of journalists outright ignore press releases sent by businesses.

Former Conde Nast journalist Anna Johnstone confirmed this: “Most days I receive over 100 press releases.These documents are often several pages long each, are usually not relevant to what I write about, so they almost always get instantly deleted”.

Johnstone went on to say that she still does work with businesses to produce articles, but that she only does this when they send her information in a way that is useful to her writing process.

In short, effective press release writing has changed, and here is what works in 2020.

Key takeaways:

  • Collate original data relevant to your industry
  • Create a landing page on your website to share this data in an easy-to-digest way
  • Send journalists short, personalised emails that introduce the data and offer a few angles where it could be used

The story is in the statistics

Journalist Anna Johnstone
Journalist Anna Johnstone provides her advice for business owners writing press releases. Image: Supplied.

“It’s rare that journalists want to write a story about something that a business has done,” said Johnstone .

“Rather, journalists are looking for the insights that experts within a business may have on topics that they already write about.”

When it comes to offering insight to journalists, the best way to get their attention is by offering them unique data that sheds light on a topic they regularly write about.

Journalists tend to write about the same few topics repeatedly, and if you offer them some insightful or controversial data on one of their preferred topics, this may well be included in one of their future stories.

While the gathering and presenting data may seem beyond businesses with small marketing budgets, many businesses are actually sitting on newsworthy data without even realising it.

Here are some examples to get you thinking:

  • The fluctuations in your pricing or suppliers over recent years could be used in a personal finance piece
  • CRM data could be featured in an article about buyer behavior in your industry
  • Your company’s search data could be used in an article about how seasonality or specific events impacts demands for certain products or services

Google Surveys also allows you to collect statistically significant data for a relatively negligible cost.

These days, getting media attention for your business with any sort of scale requires either unique data or a PR stunt that is truly newsworthy.

Having your customers fill out a survey, or running one on Google surveys is almost always the most budget-friendly way of doing this.

Pick your journalists wisely and personalise your emails

“The amount of emails I get that either pitch stories that I have already covered, or have no relevance to my publication is staggering,” said Johnstone. “My colleagues and I can smell a massed email from a mile off, and because personalisation is so rare it generally gets my attention.”

The first step of personalising your email is to only reach out to journalists for whom your press release is relevant.

The easiest way to do this is to look at who writes articles about your industry for each outlet.

If you Google site:[target outlet] “your industry” (without the square brackets, but with the quotes), Google will present you with all the pages on that outlet that mention your industry.

From there you can see who writes about your industry at each publication.

It’s only worth emailing people who have recently written articles relevant to your information, or who write about it regularly.

Once you’ve seen what your target journalist writes about, you can use this information to personalise the email you send to them.

Tell them exactly how the information you have relates to something they have recently written.

This will both show them that your email has not been massed out (something that puts off a lot of journalists) and gives them a logical reason for including your information in an upcoming piece.

Finally, it is well worth matching a journalists writing style in your email to them.

Matching a journalist’s tone has the double effect of building a rapport with them, and making any information in your email that you want included less of an effort to edit, as it is already written in their writing style.
Keep your initial email short, and include the body of your press release on a landing page

Johnstone explained that, on a typical day, she has to write anywhere between six and nine articles.

This means that long emails where she has to spend time dissecting information will likely be ignored.

Rather, emails should be short and to the point, saying exactly what useful information you are presenting, and why it could be of interest to the recipient.

The actual information you are presenting should be on a separate landing page.

“It’s far easier to work off a press release that has a dedicated page. That way I can keep it open while writing my article, and I can link to it in my piece rather than writing out all the information again.”

Given that time is of the essence to journalists, having sound-byte-able quotes, clearly laid out statistics, and charts with embed codes that allow you to paste them straight into a CMS dramatically increases your chances of inclusion.

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Johnstone has confirmed our suspicion that the traditional press release format, as espoused on countless websites, is losing its effectiveness in attracting media interest.

Rather, companies should consider how to produce targeted, relevant insights from their own industry perspective before packaging them in the most digestible formats used by today’s journalists.