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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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March 19, Prince Rupert, British Columbia – The Museum of Northern British Columbia is prolonging a dispute over the carving shed, an artist’s work space on museum grounds, by refusing to negotiate, says Tsimshian master carver Henry Green. In fact, the attitudes of curator Susan Marsden and the museum directors has outraged local First Nations residents to such a degree that some are talking about reclaiming artifacts currently held by the museum.

The behavior of museum officials may also be in violation of British Columbia human rights, labour, and commercial tenancy statutes.

Over the thirty-nine years of its existence, the carving shed has provided work space for many prominent First Nations artists. However, in the last year, relations between the artists using the shed and the museum have deteriorated, due to a concerted attempt by the museum to exert greater control. A carved sign directing visitors to the carving shed was confiscated by the museum and not returned for eight months, a phone was removed from the shed, and members of Green’s family have been harassed and barred by Marsden and her staff.

Once, when the locks on the shed were changed without warning, Green was forced to wait four hours to retrieve his personal belongings, including his unique set of carving tools. “During this time I was berated and talked down to,” Green says.

Matters came to a head in late January, when the museum gave the carvers one week to vacate the premises, despite the fact that moving several large carvings was impossible on such short notice. The museum claimed that it wished to renovate the dilapidated carving shed, although no plans had been filed at Prince Rupert city hall. Museum officials also claimed they wished to use the shed as a teaching tool for local students, although Green and other users of the shed have taught and given demonstrations for years.

Museum employee Sampson Bryant implies that another motive was to collect rent from those using the shed. However, since the shed is owned by the City of Prince Rupert, the museum’s right to rent the space is questionable. Even if that right is upheld, the behavior of museum officials may violate commercial tenancy law in British Columbia.

Green and other artists have repeatedly requested to talk to museum officials, but with little success, since meetings of the museum’s board of directors are not publicized — nor, for that matter the names of the directors.

A meeting brokered by Prince Rupert Mayor Jack Mussalem and John Helin, an official representative of the allied Tsimshian tribes, broke down when Wes Baker, chairman of the museum board, refused to cooperate or compromise. Mussalem did promise to find alternate work space for the artists, but, meanwhile, the museum has insisted that the artist vacate — before the time in which the city had promised to find accommodation, and before the board meeting at which the artists have finally been given time to discuss the situation before the board.

“This behavior is completely against the spirit with which users of the shed and museum officials have always interacted,” Green says. “We have never had an official arrangement, but the relationship has always been to the benefit of everyone. The museum gives artists a place to work, and the artists attract tourists to the museum.”

A separate web page for the carving shed that includes a photo of Green (http://www.museumofnorthernbc.com/pages/06carving/06index.html) suggests that, until recently, the museum shared this attitude.

Also at issue is the question of whether the museum is guilty of violating labour laws and human rights statutes. Section B5 of the Ethics Guidelines of the Canadian Museums’ Association states that museum workers are defined as “individuals responsible for any aspect of museum operation….paid or volunteer,…occasional or contract,” as well as “privately or self employed persons practicing one of the related museological fields.” In other words, if the museum has control over the carving shed, then it has certain obligations to the artists, and could be guilty of wrongful termination and dismissal without cause as defined under B.C. labour law.

While these events have unfolded, support for the carvers has quickly spread, thanks largely to a Facebook group called “Expression, not Oppression” started by Morgan Green, Henry Green’s daughter and apprentice. The group now has almost a thousand members, including such prominent First Nations artists as Lyle Campbell and Ya’Ya; local Tsimshians, and art lovers from across the country.

The group has been used by Bryant to denounce and threaten Green and the other artists. However, most members of the Facebook group have expressed the conviction that the behavior of museum officials shows a disrespect for local First Nations, particularly in the treatment of a prominent artist like Henry Green.

“I am quite disgusted with the Museum for their lack of cooperation in this matter,” Breena Bolton writes. “[They are] all adults, yet they have to hide information, and try portray the artists in such a negative manner.”

Similarly, Christine Parnell writes, “I think that the museum has to remember it is our Artifacts that bring in the money to that museum. I think if they continue to not only disrespect the carvers but our Allied Tribes voice that we, as Tsimshians should look at repatriating our artifacts back to their rightful owners.”

In response to the situation, supporters of the artists have scheduled a peaceful protest at the carving shed today at noon in order to express support for the artists.

“I don’t know why the situation had to come to this,” Green says. “Carvers in the shed have had differences with the museum before, but they were resolved by discussion and negotiation. But, for some reason, now museum officials have a win-at-all-costs mentality. They seem to have forgotten that the museum’s mandate is to form respectful relationships with the Tsimshian nation.”

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