News releases, also known as press releases, are one of the most popular public relations tools out there. You write a news release as a ready-to-publish news story to encourage journalists to run something about your client.
News releases traditionally come in three formats.
- Announcement (the straight news story)
- Feature story (a combination of informative information and entertainment)
- Hybrid story (a combination of the announcement and feature)
Today we’re going to talk about the first one, as it is the most common. Announcement news releases follow the inverted pyramid format. Inverted pyramid format is simply a way to illustrate how the information should be organized and structured with the most important information at the top and the least essential information at the bottom. This type of writing originated during the civil war. Prior to that newspapers were written as narratives. The new format allowed editors to peg the story even if the telegraph wires were cut in the middle of the story’s transmission.
The audience of your news release is a journalist, so to be successful you need to focus on communicating newsworthy information. In an ideal situation, all of the information you would need to convey would be newsworthy with an interesting hook. However, many PR pros also use them for announcing personnel promotions, awards, new products and services, sales accomplishments, etc. A good newsworthy story has at least one of the following news hooks.
Overall, your news release will follow a basic format. At the top, you label the document as a “News Release” in big bold letters. Below that, the news release follows with the following headings: “FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE” with the date below it and “FOR MORE INFORMATION” with the contact person and information below that. This section should be single spaced. Leave about two single spaces between the bottom of the heading and the headline.
5Ws & 1H
This stands for the who, what, when, where, why and how of a story. These are the most critical points to communicate to your audience. Usually the most significant of these are the who and the what. Think about these focus points as you write your news release.
Here are some questions to ask yourself.
- What was unique or the most important or unusual thing that happened?
- Who was involved? Who did it or said it?
Think back to the newsworthiness section where we talked about using a good hook.
Use conversational, not pretentious writing. When possible, use contractions and pronouns. However, stay away from jargon and clichés. The simpler your writing is the better. You should be writing the release at about an eighth grade reading level (or lower). Make your news release easier to read by using active voice. The subject comes first, then the verb, then the object (remember S-V-O).
Use the Associated Press (AP) Style when writing a news release, or any news materials for that matter. The AP style and usage guide is used by newspapers and in the news industry in the United States, and you can purchase a hard copy or subscribe online to ensure you’re complying with the guidelines.
The news release should be no more than one page and no less than 100 words. I’d say 400-500 words is a good rule of thumb.
Use a newspaper-style headline. The headline should be written in recent past tense, such as “Florida State University celebrates sesquicentennial anniversary.” Mention your client’s name in the headline if possible. Remember that words such as “and” are dropped and replaced with commas to save space.
Use brief, clear sentences, and keep each paragraph to one item (usually one or two sentences).
Begin the first paragraph with a dateline in capital letters and a long dash (for example, “TALLAHASSEE,Fla.—”). The dateline tells the reader where the story originated. They help establish local interest. Consult your AP Stylebook to find out if you should include the state with the city. Large metro areas stand alone.
The lead paragraph encapsulates your main idea. There are different type of leads. Many people think the summary lead is the best; it answers the most it can about the who, what, when, where, why and how in the first paragraph. The downside is that it’s hard to read all of that in the first graph. Instead, your lead can contain the most important Ws and H. Direct leads contain specific information about what happened or what was said (such as when the event occurred, the location and the source).
Keep your lead paragraph short; you don’t want to move beyond 20-25 words. To do this, cut unnecessary attribution, compound sentences joined by “but” and “and,” and exact dates and times unless essential.
Quotes add character to your news release, supplementing facts and adding detail. Releases should balance direct and indirect quotes, so you should alternate when a person is being quoted in a story. You should not use quotes as an opportunity to editorialize; however, many PR pros do.
Here are some sample news releases I’ve written.
The next thing you have to think about is how you’re going to distribute your news release effectively, but that’s a whole different blog post for a different day.