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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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Every day, thousands of news releases are emailed. And, every day, thousands of news releases are deleted unread or only partially unread — all because their writers don’t bother to make their news sound important.

Let me explain. Not counting duplicates, I receive several hundred news releases a week. However, I only read about 30-40. I can discard most of them because their distributors haven’t bothered to target their work, and the releases have nothing to do with free software or GNU/Linux. But I also discard many of the rest without reading beyond the first paragraph because they fail to make me care about their news. If the PR people can’t focus enough to make their news interesting, why should I waste more than a minimal amount of time reading their releases?

That may sound harsh. Yet, without ruthless tactics, I would hardly have time to do anything except read releases. Nor did I (or would I) ask for most of the releases I receive.

Besides, I am hardly alone. If anything, I probably receive fewer releases than many computer journalists. A public relations writer who doesn’t know this reality is ignorant about one of the basics facts of their trade. So, really, it is only common sense that they should do what they can to emphasize the relevance of their news, especially when the task is fairly simple.

I always say that, to write successful PR, you need to assume that your everyone in your audience has an attention deficit disorder. They see so many releases that they’re easily bored. A PR writer’s job is to break through that lack of attention so that journalists will read the details and be roused to do a story based on the news.

The best way to attract attention would be to write a custom release for every long term connection. However, that’s hardly practical (although targeting your release is, despite the modern PR writer’s fondness for spamming techniques). But. with a little effort a writer can craft a release that keeps recipients reading.

If you want to attract interest in a release, the place to start is with the head – which should also probably be the subject line if you send the release in an email. Far from being the after-thought that many PR writers seem to make it, the head should be a pithy summary of the news and why it matters. It should not be – as so many PR writers make it – something as bland as “News release from MyPR.”

In fact, it should not just be a bare statement of fact, no matter how specific. For instance, instead of “Jack Parker becomes company CTO” try “Company refocuses on core values by appointing Jack Parker CTO.” The first head sounds irrelevant, while the second explains how the news might affect the company.

A head is usually less than a dozen words, but if you’ve struggled with them the way you should, you won’t need a sub-head. Many long-time writers will actually tell you not to bother with a sub-head, because it’s usually just one more chance to lose the reader. However, if your news is especially complex, those few more words might help keep readers’ attention.

However, most of the time, you’ll want to get directly into the lede. Like the opening of a short story, your first sentence should be the hook you use to catch readers’ attention. You can use the rest of the first paragraph to expand on the gist of what you have to say, but if readers flounder on the first sentence, many of them won’t read beyond the rest of the paragraph, let alone the release.

One thing you do not do is throw away the first sentence with long sentences and cliches. Yes, you want the lede to summarize your news and its importance. But it won’t fill this goal if it’s a compound-complex sentence, and even the most sympathetic reader has trouble following through its entire ten line.

Nor do you want to lose interest by describing your client as a “world leader” in its field or by using any other cliche that the reader has heard thousands of times before. Cliches lose readers’ attention, accomplishing the exact opposite of what you should be trying to do.

Once past the head and the lede, you can relax a bit. However, keep the release short for all but the most monumental news, and put a few quotes in to break up the bald recital of facts. But remember that the quotes should be people talking like people, not like an animated dictionary. Like a cliche, lame prose is just going to lose the reader.

Don’t worry, either, about giving a company bio until the end. Anything more than a clause half a dozen words long will only complicate your basic message unnecessarily. The only reason that anyone will want more about the company is because they are going ahead with a story based on your release. Providing a corporate bio is a courtesy you do journalists, not something that will help you drum up interest in your story.

The idea that a news release should explain why the information it carries is important sounds obvious. Apparently, though, the idea has never occurred to the majority of people working in public relations. Perhaps they are so busy writing a release that pleases their boss or client that they don’t stop to think that they are being paid to offer their expertise as well as please. Or, perhaps, they think the importance of their news is self-evident; the fact that their company has a new point release of a product has kept everyone in the office working overtime for weeks, so why shouldn’t the rest of the world be concerned?

I suspect, though, that many PR writers simply find mass mailouts easier than taking the time to craft a release that journalists will read. Spam, after all, is easy, and effective writing hard. But it is only by effective writing that the composers of news releases can even hope to have their efforts read. Otherwise, they may as well not even bother.

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In another blog entry, I criticized public relation managers for not doing their job well. Doing so expressed a pet peeve – and one that I feel perfectly justified in holding, since I’ve done public relations work myself. However, in the interests of fairness, let me describe two PR types that do know their jobs.

One manages communication for a non-profit organization whose activities I often cover in my articles. On my request, he sends me each of the organization’s news releases directly – but didn’t do so until I specifically asked him to. Once the release is sent, he knows that I can be trusted to follow up on it if I have permission from my editors to develop a story based on it.

When I ask for an interview with one of the people he represents, he gets back to me in a few hours, knowing that, as an online journalist, I am on Internet time, and that a response in two or three days is frequently too slow for my needs; sometimes, his response is only to let me know that he has been unable to find someone who is travelling or otherwise busy, but he lets me know so I can work around the situation.

When I phone for an interview, he ensures that all participants is there, then leaves the call, rather than hanging around worrying whether any of those he represents will say something rash (which would be a waste of his time as well as a discourtesy, since his co-workers are formidably eloquent and experienced dealing with the media).

While I can’t say he is is an unmet friend, he is always professional and courteous, and stops to exchange a few pleasantries whenever we talk. But, most of all, he is dependable. I know that when something is in his hands, it will be efficiently and politely handled, and, in return, I try to conduct myself by the same standards.

The second example is a woman who is just as professional. However, while I don’t know whether the man in the first example has the least interest in the activities of the organization for which he works, this second example has just discovered the free software community, and is exploring it with enthusiasm. She gives the lie to those who claim that, to do PR, you don’t need to know what your clients do, because, the more she learns, the more useful she becomes to her clients and to the journalists who cover them.

In fact, the last story I wrote about one of her clients, she even went so far as to gather source material to help me make the deadline – not because I asked her, but because she was interested in the subject. The result was that I got the story out faster, to the satisfaction of both her client and me.

What both these examples have in common is that they understand that communications is about enabling everybody to meet their needs. Their employers or customers have stories that they want covered, and I have deadlines that I have to meet. By cultivating good relations with journalists like me, they ensure that those stories get told. and everyone wins.

By contrast, other PR agents have ensured that their employers’ stories have gone untold for reasons as trivial as their refusal to tell me what the story was they wanted me to cover; given my workload, I simply can’t afford to devote time to a story unless I know that it’s worthwhile and have some details to pitch to my editors.

Probably, too, the people I’m praising are also laying the groundwork for how their clients are regarded by the media in the future. Naturally, journalists try to be fair, and not to hold back on criticism when they think it’s deserved, but we wouldn’t be human if we didn’t respond well to people who make our lives easier.

My only concern is that the kind of PR epitomized by these people may be on the way out. One similar communications manager told me recently that, because she targets her media inquiries, only sending out a dozen or so a day when others send out hundreds, her employer sometimes gets testy with her. Apparently, those to whom she would report would rather have hundreds of emails sent out that are treated as spam than a smaller number that all get results. But in expressing such a preference for quantity, companies are only hurting their own publicity efforts. It’s the PR people who build long-term relations through efficiency and helpfulness that represent businesses the best, not those who copy the techniques of spammers.

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Spam techniques have now become standard in public relations. I’ve come to this realization over the last couple of years as I’ve watched the dozens of emails from communication managers that arrive daily in my mailbox. Probably, the senders don’t think of what they are doing as spamming. Very likely, some even imagine that they are doing their jobs efficiently. Yet they might as well be spammers, for all the effectiveness they have. An increasing majority seem to think they’ve done their job if they’ve sent their news to every remotely possible recipient.

This attitude frequently has ludicrous results. For instance, you might think that one look at the free software sites for which I write would tell PR hacks what the sites are interested in: Free and open source software, and the GNU/Linux operating system especially. Yet out of an average of maybe sixty news releases that I receive daily, at least two-thirds of them on any given day are likely to contain news about the Windows or Mac platforms or proprietary software – often both. Either the PR people don’t know enough about technology to know that the editors don’t want this news, or they don’t care.

Even more surprisingly, some releases aren’t about computer technology at all. Probably the senders are working from a general list of news outlets, and haven’t bothered to figure out which ones might want their news.

Then, just to make matters worse, they don’t just send the initial release. Some of them send exactly the same release the next day. Others send “just a note to see if you got my news yesterday.” A few repeat the process several times with every release.

Some, having picked up the idea that they should target a name, address their news directly to a person who works for the site. The only trouble is, they never bother updating their contact lists. I know at least one site that regularly gets email addressed to people who haven’t worked there for several years – sometimes in addition to the general ones sent to the editors’ mailing list.

All in all, it’s getting so bad that my little finger is getting repetitive stress injuries from hitting the delete key so many times in a day.

Admittedly, the sender don’t conceal their names or use malware to send email from other people’s computers, but, if what they’re doing isn’t spamming, the difference is hard to distinguish.

In particular — and what really should concern the senders – the results they get are the same as those from spam. Before long, their emails are added to everyone’s spam filters, so if they ever do have news the site can use, nobody is every going to read it. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if some writers and editors resist using information from certain PR agencies or people, simply because they’ve become so annoyed by them.

Yet when someone – usually out of cynicism or a wicked sense of amusement – lets the senders know that they’re wasting their time, most of them don’t change their behavior. They’ll apologize, express their gratitude for the correction – and then, at the very next opportunity, do exactly the same thing. I sometimes wonder whether the effectiveness of PR these days is being judged by the number of outlets it’s sent to.

When a news release is sent out, the ideal situation is that the news is used. The company gets the publicity it wants, and the news outlet gets the material it needs. But, when spamming techniques are used, nobody wins. The PR hack gets unofficially blacklisted, the company fails to get its publicity, and the journalists get angry and look for copy elsewhere. And why? Because too many PR hacks are too lazy or ignorant to do their jobs properly.

Needless to say, not every communications manager uses spam techniques. I know several who carefully target their news releases, and work hard to make sure that everyone on both ends of a release wins. These are the real pros of communications, and I am always grateful for their competence – if only because of its increasing rarity.

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