For a journalist in the modern era, a significant proportion of one’s week is made up of reading, rewriting and deleting press releases from an email inbox. A good press release can brighten up a reporter’s day, a bad one can result in use of expletives and is likely to be sent straight to the Deleted Items folder.
In my past year at TFN, and the previous decade working in local newspapers, I have come across some exceedingly bad – and even some hilariously entertaining – press releases. From tips on how to avoid a summer drought (in Scotland!) to research being carried out by the University of Roehampton on the optimum weight for zoo animals, the bad ones certainly stick in the memory longer than the good ones.
But what makes a good press release? I think the starting point is having a key reason for creating your release. Gaining regular news coverage is great for your organisation’s publicity, and will keep your trustees and senior management happy, but quality is far more important than quantity.
Once you have a clear event or development which merits some press coverage, it is important to ensure that there is clarity in the way that your information is put down in writing. Rambling sentences, jargon and overcomplicated words are not going to make many publications, and may result in the press release being too complicated for a journalist to turn into a story.
People like to read about people, and hence making sure you include case studies or comments from members of staff, service users or those affected by the theme of the press release is vital. Try to keep quotes natural but relevant. Even if you release is about a relatively dry issue, you can make it interesting by presenting the information with a bit of character. The general rule for quotes is to keep them to a few lines, and if possible feature a few different spokespeople in a release.
Another key point is checking your facts. Statistics are a great way of proving the point you are making, or highlighting the need for your organisation. However in these days of ‘Fake News’, any slight discrepancies are likely to be highlighted swiftly on social media. If you get them wrong in the first place, it’s likely to leave the organisations you are aiming to reach also facing criticism.
Once you have a clear press release, including some nice stats and a few quotes, it’s time to think pictures. A good picture or two will massively increase your chance of gaining print coverage, but also online as many news organisations will not publish a web story without a picture. As with stories, pictures are also about people. Try to include a few different faces, and a caption with the full names of those featured will win you friends in the media.
Another common issue for journalists is being sent images that are too small or blurry to use. Stick to JPG images where possible and you want files of at least 2MB in size, and nearer 10MB for use in print.
Before you send a press release it is important to think who you are sending it to. It’s good to aim high, but equally you need to think who is best suited, and most likely, to feature your issue. National papers and organisations are looking for stories of national importance, local newspapers will want issues or case studies specific to their area, and for policy developments and research you may have to target sector specific publications. If you’re contacting television or radio stations, you need to have people lined up to speak to them and also have some ideas for where any interviews could be hosted.
If in doubt, pick up the phone. There is certainly no harm in asking a newsdesk if they are likely to be interested in your release, and what their requirements for running a story would be. I’m always happy to have a chat with charities and give them advice on how best to get issues of importance heard.
SCVO is running the ‘I Love Charity’ campaign, to inspire trust in charities by supporting good governance within organisations to ensure they are well run, open and transparent, and to encourage charities to work harder at promoting the positive impact of their work.
As part of this, we’ll be running a series of events aimed at helping charities to better tell their stories, and our programme of action will kick off at our Storytelling Conference in November.