05 March 2006

Writing Press Releases

After a few months seeking freelance gigs, I hit a busy spurt. Writing press releases ranks high among my task list, and I've learned a few helpful tips toward initial composition and subsequent revisions I believe all may find valuable.

1. Identify your audience. Ask yourself, "Who will read this, who do I plan on sending it to? Are they health care professionals in general or specifically orthodonists, gynecologists, psychologists, or CNAs?" Once you've identified the recipients of your release, you will be able to analyze what their needs are or what grips them. Then you can work on step two.

2. Make it newsworthy. Without some statistic or some relatable story, no one will read it. They will probably say to themselves, "So what?" State a problem, perhaps a shortage of Alzheimer's care givers and appropriate training courses; perhaps, a new earphone that repairs inner ear damage incurred by other headsets.

3. Hook the reader. Now technically, this should be your priority, but without doing some researching via the aforementioned steps, it would be incredibly difficult to effectively hook the reader. For those unfamiliar with the term, hook means to grab the reader and pull them into the story. You've heard that old phrase, "I reeled 'em in, hook, line, and sinker"?

You can typically create a hook in one of two ways:

a. Engage the senses. This technique, although more commonly associated with "creative" writing, presents the best way of hooking a reader, in my humble opinion. It provides flair, intrigue, and metaphor. Take this opening paragraph from Random House's press release written for Karen Houppert's Home Fires Burning:

As taps echoes across the cookie-cutter housing areas of upstate New York’s Fort Drum, the wives turn on the evening news, both hoping for and dreading word of their husbands overseas. It’s a ritual played out on military bases across the nation as the waiting wives of Karen Houppert’s extraordinary new book endure a long, lonely, and difficult year with their husbands far from home. Houppert, a prize winning journalist, spent a year among these women, joining them as they had babies, raised families, ran Cub Scout troops, coached soccer–and went to funerals.

Note how the writer carefully chose those words in the first sentence to invoke the feelings of the wives waiting for their husbands stationed overseas..."taps" for the sense of restless waiting and even the possibility of an impending military funeral, "echoes" for the empty bed and lonely heart, "cookie-cutter" as ironic foreshadowing to the military's approach to dealing with these women. The language hits the reader's emotional core.

b. Use phenomenal statistics. Nothing strikes a reader more than some outrageous numbers, some shocking stat that sends them panicking to stock up on non-perishables or consult a doctor about their medications. Take this opening line from another Random House press release for Dr. Francine Kaufman's Diabesity:
Experts now predict that more than one-third of American children born in 2000 will develop diabetes in their lifetime. Written by one of the world’s leading authorities on the link between obesity and diabetes, this passionate, frightening–but ultimately hopeful–book points the way to a solution.

ONE-THIRD of American children! How can that be possible? Even if we don't believe the statistic, we want to read on. Search for those statistics that will hook readers in the same way, and you'll have a press release sure to be reprinted by multiple journals, magazines, and newspapers.

4. Name drop. Note that in the Diabesity quote, the writer threw in the fact that Dr. Kaufman is "one of the world's leading authorities." This sort of statement lends credibility to the book. Also, note that the writer doesn't go into full details of the doctor's credentials; that comes at the end of the release, right before the contact information.

5. Direct readers to more info. When you've exhausted the story without letting it dwindle into nothing, provide contact information. This may include the publisher's or author's website, a phone number or email address, and the name of the person to be contacted. Interested editors and reporters want more, so make sure they know where to get it.

6. Keep it to one page or less. News readers have short attention spans, so keep it short. You want to entice the reader to buy the book, or use it in an article, not give away all the major points of the book. That's what reviewers are for.

CAUTION Although all writing is in and of itself a sales pitch, do not make a press release sound like that guy knocking down your door with vacuum cleaner in hand. Unless someone's looking for what your selling, they will trash your release in a heartbeat.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the primer! Good stuff, this. I've taken the liberty of cutting and pasting it and am sure I will use it next time I have to crank out a PSA.