Archive for February 24th, 2011

News releases are less common than they were a few years ago. Particularly in computer technology, they have been partly replaced by blogs. However, many organizations still rely on releases when they have major news, and when an acquaintance recently asked my advice on the frequency of releases, I also started thinking of the mechanics of writing them.

The first thing to remember about writing releases is that they are your organization’s bid for attention. Unfortunately, though, you are competing with dozens – sometimes hundreds – of publicists, all trying to get attention of the same journalists. These journalists see more news releases in a month than you will probably write in your life. They can’t pay close attention to them all, and, in some cases, familiarity has bred contempt.

Under these circumstances, try to envision the audience for your release as people with attention deficit disorder. They aren’t inclined to read your release all the way through, so you have one of two goals: to try to keep them reading, or, failing that, to make sure they get your basic message before they stop reading.

These goals shape the structure of every release. Basically, your news release is a repetition of whatever you have to announce: first as a phrase, next as a paragraph, and finally as several paragraphs.

Step 1: The Headline

The phrase is your lede or headline. Probably, it’s the most difficult part of writing a release, because it needs to summarize your news in about half a dozen words and encourage jaded journalists to read the rest. For this reason, you often want to write the lede last, when your main message is probably clearest in your mind.

Some releases use a sub-lede, in a slightly smaller font, in the hopes of embedding two thoughts instead of one in readers’ minds. This technique can be especially effective with a tantalizing lede that is immediately followed by a more explicit sub-lede.

Most of the time, though, a sub-lede is a waste of effort. If you can’t summarize in six to eight words, then twelve to sixteen often aren’t going to help you that much. You can’t be sure that readers will go beyond the first headline anyway.

Step 2: The First Paragraph

However, in the hopes that they are interested enough to read on, the next stage is to summarize your news in perhaps a hundred words in the first paragraph.Traditionally, the first paragraph starts off with a dateline — the name of the city, in brackets, from which you are writing. However, in the Internet era, a dateline is only necessary if the story is local and you wish to emphasize that you are writing from where the action is.

If possible, the gist should be in the first sentence, but this is the place where writers start to flounder in a number of different ways. One common mistake in the first paragraph is to echo the language of the lede too closely – if you start repeating yourself so quickly, you create the impression that you don’t have much to say, and readers will not bother with the rest.

Another mistake is to cram the first sentence with as many adjectives and adverbs and clauses and sub-clauses as possible, in the effort to summarize the news. Torturous sentences don’t encourage anyone. Far better to divide such a first sentence into several shorter sentences that are easy to read.

Still another mistake is to reach for cliches. For instance, a few years ago, every organization that issued a release liked to claim it was “a world leader” in its field. However, cliches will defeat your goals every time, because the whole problem with cliches is that, since they are familiar, they encourage readers to pay less attention, and skip over the rest.

Instead of these mistakes, focus on stating the main points clearly: who is making the announcement, what the announcement is, and why anyone else should care about the announcement.

Of these points, why anyone should care is the most important, and the hardest to write. If you are unfamiliar with the subject matter, you may have to pump someone for the information. Conversely, if you are familiar with the subject matter, you may take its importance for granted, or find trivial reasons far more important than anybody else would. At other times, the only honest answer would be that the subject is not important at all, and that you wouldn’t be writing the release in the first place, except that somebody in authority insisted, in which case what you say will sound unavoidably feeble. Yet stating the subject’s importance in a few sentences — perhaps even half a sentence — is the entire reason for the release; leave it out, and nobody has any reason to read the rest of the release. You need to imaginatively project yourself into an outsider’s frame of reference, and ask yourself what might matter to potential readers (or, to be more precise, what journalists think might matter to potential readers).

Given the pitfalls and the difficulty of stating your points, don’t be surprised if you spend more time over the first paragraph than the rest of the paragraphs in the release combined. However, after you have wrestled with the first paragraph, the remainder of the release generally comes more easily.

Step 3: The Body of the Release

The rest of the release is formulaic. Usually, the second and sometimes third paragraph give more details about your news in three to five sentences apiece.

About the third or fourth paragraph, readers may be getting a little restless, so it’s usually an idea to bring in a quote to encourage them to keep going. A quote breaks up the release and (unless it’s so stilted that no one obviously said it) is a personal touch – which readers always appreciate.

The best quote is one from a person who is relevant to your news, either an expert in the field or an executive in the organization that is issuing the release. Ideally, it should be something that the person could actually say out loud. Next best is one that the speaker writes for themselves.

However, if you have a good ear for the way that people speak, don’t hesitate to write the quote, then ask the person to whom the quote is to be attributed to approve it as something they would actually say. If the alleged speaker is a senior executive, that may be the only way you’re going to get your quote. Too often, an executive is either too busy to write the quote themselves or else, as often happens with technology releases, knows too little about the mechanics of whatever is being discussed to say anything that sounds knowledgeable.

After the quote, a release often has a paragraph or two that gives a less important detail or two. You can get away with such paragraphs because, having come so far, readers are likely to finish reading just out of habit. Still, you want to keep such secondary paragraphs short so you don’t tax readers’ patience too much.

In the last paragraph, you can provide a few housekeeping details, such as when an event is taking place or a product is scheduled for release. This matter is necessary, but not terrifically interesting, so personally, I like to augment it with another quote that stresses the importance or interest of the news, or its implications. That way, you might reinforce your message in readers’ minds one last time.

During the release, I like to describe the organization with only a short phrase. Stopping to describe the organization in detail is a distraction from the main purpose of the release. However, some of those who read the release all the way through may want to learn more about the organization without clicking a llink. For these readers, I like to put at the bottom of the release, separated from the rest by a sub-heading, a paragraph or two about the organization. It’s there if anyone wants it, and, being clearly marked, can be ignored by everybody else.

Final Preparation

And with that, you have the 200-400 words of the release. Rewrite it until it’s as short as possible – you can only get away with long releases if your news is unusually important. Proofread it endlessly. Simplify the language, and cut where you can. Grab a couple of people and get their reactions, and edit yet again, paying special attention to the lede and first paragraph, since you are now in a better position to know what they should say.

Then, just before you send out your news, check that you have included the email and phone number for whoever readers can contact for more information or to set up an interview. I like to put this information at the top of the release, above the lede, on the grounds that at, the very least, people will see that you have news and know where to learn more. This practice may mean that you endure clueless questions from people too lazy to read the release, but at least it means that you have connected with them.

One last point: Don’t let my suggestion that you assume readers are easily bored tempt you into doing something truly outrageous, such as sending out a release on bright pink paper with a novelty font. Ploys like that will get you attention, all right – but not the kind you want. More likely, it will result in people snickering at you.

Instead of going so far, concentrate on expressing your news in straightforward, effective language, and as concisely as possible.There’s an art to writing a news release, but it’s a starkly functional art whose structure shouldn’t be obvious to anyone except another publicist.

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