Copywriting

Write a press release like a pro

Write a press release like a pro
Why do we write press releases? How are they useful? Who uses them? Professional copywriters will write many press releases in their careers, and here's how I approach mine.

There are many types of press release.

In the 25 years I’ve been reading and writing them, I’ve seen the good and bad, the short and long, and the messy and tidy. I’ve thrown my own hat into the ring for this article, as well as for my Skillshare course on this topic. Is there is a right way and a wrong way to put a press release together? Yes and no. There’s a standard way, and it’s flexible. So, let me show you how I write them. First, let’s establish what they are and why we write them.

A press release is a piece of copy designed to share news. They are usually written by, or on behalf of, companies. They are usually read by journalists, or those people putting news together for various media channels. I’ve been on both sides of the coin. As an editor, I would read through mountains of press releases and share the most interesting pieces in the magazine or website I was editing. As a copywriter, I write them for business clients who want to share their latest innovation, or financial results, or product launch, etc. The final press release would be shared with a PR agency, who would then send it to their contact lists.

You can find the good, bad and ugly of press releases on sites such as Newswire and Business Wire. Take a look around to see typical examples of what we’re talking about here. My favourite method of finding press releases is by subscribing to the newsroom sections of the businesses I want to stay up to date with. Apple has a great newsroom, with top-drawer examples of press release best practice.

What are the benefits of a press release? The best examples grab people’s attention. These are designed to build brand image and business reputation, as well as help you build good relationships with journalists. These are the professionals who will help you spread your news, so it’s best to stay in their good books! A press release can also help people find the right words to describe your new product, establishing the narrative tone and presenting the facts.

The basic structure of a press release

A standard press release looks like this:

The structure of a standard press release.
An animated GIF showing standard press release structure.

The headline is at the top, then the sub-header, followed by an opening paragraph, the main body copy, perhaps a couple of quotes, contact details or call to action, and some information about your company or brand. Extra things could be access to images that accompany your press release, or link to a promo video.

When I tackle a new project, I begin with the opening paragraph. When I nail this, I build the story around it. More often than not, I write the headline and sub-header last.

The opening paragraph

The opener is where all of the information is. Don’t be afraid to give away nearly everything your press release will eventually contain. The idea is that time-starved skim-readers may only read this bit, so you need it to do a lot of work. You should ideally include:

Who?

What?

Where?

When?

How?

Not all of these elements are necessary, but try to include as many as you can. Also, try to imagine you’re the journalist reading it. Imagine you have a busy day ahead of you. Is this press release interesting enough? Does the opening paragraph pique your interest? Journalists work through lots of press releases, so if you don’t share as much information as possible right up front, you may lose their attention.

The objective of the press release is to get your news out into the world, so help the journalist as much as possible.

The body copy

Body copy refers to the text that makes up the body of the article. It’s the big, fleshy bit in the middle. But don’t be tricked into thinking it needs to be long. Keep your press release tight, not flabby.

You’ve successfully caught the journalist’s eye, so the body copy should delve deeper into the facts of the story, fleshing out the details and adding richness to the narrative. Stick with past tense, and stick to the facts. Try to avoid sounding like an advert as you write this section.

The best way to approach this is by thinking of the whole press release as a story. Good copywriters provide narrative structure. The hero of your story could be anything, but try to hone it down to what you want your reader to relate to. Perhaps you’re writing about a company expansion plan. The hero may be the expertise you’re ready to share with a wider audience. Perhaps you’re launching a programme that will help women become doctors. The hero may be the programme itself, or the concept of inspiring confidence and leadership.

Find your hero and build around it. Here’s how you might do that:

  • Introduce the hero (the programme, the expertise)
  • Define the problem and the solution
  • Reveal the benefits
  • Highlight the outcome.

If your story has a villain, it may be useful to mention it to help the reader understand the benefits of the hero. The villain for the programme example could be traditional obstacles that have prevented women from embracing medicine as a career.

The body copy should include plenty for journalists to get their teeth into. What we need next are a couple of good quotes to tie up the narrative and help the journalist even more.

Use quotes to break up the press release

Quotes are useful for breaking up the press release at just the right time. You can introduce new information, or reemphasise important parts of your story. The great news is that the journalist can’t change them. They can leave them out of their published story completely, but they can’t change them. (At least, they shouldn’t!)

The first quote you use should ideally be from the highest-ranking member of the organisation you’re writing about. The second quote should be from someone else you’ve mentioned in the press release (if you have). For instance, a press release about a new car would contain a quote from the CEO, while the second quote may be the lead engineer who designed the latest model.

It may not be possible to get the quotes you want, but most of the time your client will know that the quote needs to be from someone of importance. Most bosses I know are usually eager to have their name in print!

The interesting part of press release quotes is that you may have to make it up yourself. 8 times out of 10, I’m asked to write the quote myself, which then goes to someone else to approve. A copywriter wears many hats, so you will have to become accustomed to writing in different voices, whether that’s the leader, the extravert, the introvert, the foot soldier or office dog.

In the quote itself, try to include the following:

  • Namecheck the event or product, or hero.
  • Emphasise the benefits and the core of what you want to be associated with the news.
  • Use strong words such as new, innovative, special.

It sometimes helps if you know the person you’re writing for, as you may know their personality and what you would expect to hear them say. Try to get into their headspace – try to become them while you’re writing the quote on their behalf. Hear their voice, and anticipate their delivery of your words. You’ll know when you’ve hit the mark. You’ll feel it.

If you don’t know the person well, stay generic, but understand the role this person inhabits. If they’re the head honcho of a multinational company that employs 10,000 people, you need to tap into the language expected from that role. However, there is a caveat to consider …

The Tim Cook approach

I like Apple CEO, Tim Cook. I’ve read about his leadership qualities, and if he writes his own speeches or not, he exudes warmth and caring. However, try to avoid making your press release quote sound like Tim. In other words, avoid saying things like:

  • “We were delighted to announce … “
  • “We think you’re going to love this … “

I’m having fun at Tim’s expense, but I still love him! Just remember to keep the press release tight and not load it with too much emotion. The journalist will thank you. Of course, you may sometimes have to placate a self-important person. Which brings me to another point.

Get sign-off on the quotes you write on behalf of someone else. Approval is required if you’re doing this for an important client. Of course, the whole press release will need to be approved, but make absolutely sure that the quotes have been approved by whoever is supposed to be speaking.

Adding extra details

At the very least, you should provide a name, phone number and email address. Make it easy for someone to get in touch to find out more. A generic marketing@ email address may be good for you in terms of having mail go to a team, but I find it's better to add someone's name. Make it personal. A journalist likes a name to follow, and it shows that someone has taken ownership of the story to some degree, which exudes professionalism.

You can include images if you have the space to do so, but a link to an external location is good too. Video links are great. Anything the journalist can use to make their own publication look good is ideal. Would you write a press release about your new soda launch and not provide a hi-res image of the drink? No, you wouldn’t.

Journalists don’t just write stuff. Modern journalists post on social media, on their own video channels, on podcasts, and so on. The more you push against the limits of traditional journalism, the better your press release will be. Appeal to as many types of journalism as you can think of, especially pertaining to the demographic you want to appeal to. Supply anything that will get you seen!

Apple Newsroom is a great place to find best practice examples of how to structure a good press release.
Apple Newsroom is a great place to find best practice examples of how to structure a good press release.

What's a boilerplate?

The dull, corporate bit at at the bottom of a press release tells you about the company. Sometimes, it has more than one company, depending on what the press release is about. Here’s a typical example of what a boilerplate looks like:

An example of a typical press release boilerplate.

This is usually standardised text that reads the same on every press release. Tweaks are made here and there as time passes, but this is usually approved by senior management at the company itself. If you’re a copywriter putting a press release together for a client, ask them for their standardised boilerplate copy. If they don’t have this, offer to write it for them, which they can then use on future press releases.

The benefits of a good boilerplate include SEO, standard links for driving traffic to your site, and for helping journalists find and remember you.

I recommend writing a boilerplate for practice. You could create a fictitious company, or even write one for your favourite company or brand. Try not to peek first, then see how yours matches the official version. Practice makes perfect.

Finally, and not before time … the headline

Every press release has a headline, but not every release has a sub-header. They’re often viewed as an optional extra rather than a must-have. I like them. Having been a journalist as well as a copywriter, I know what it’s like to receive dozens of press releases a day, with no time to read them all. Most of the time, the headline is read. If it’s an intriguing headline, the sub-header gives you a bit more. If it’s enticing, the journalist will keep going. And that’s when you know the sub-header has done its job.

Let’s break down the core ingredients of a sub-header. We need to:

  • Write a sub-heading that’s descriptive and builds on the work the headline has done.
  • Grab readers’ attention and help them understand the reason for the press release.
  • Include key elements that you want to promote or inform.
  • Keep it short. Do everything in 20-25 words, if possible.

Long headlines and sub-headers exist, but they can be too much. I’m not about to encourage you to write long sub-headers. You will become a better writer by using words sparingly, trimming as you go along.

Perhaps start with the sub-header and then tackle the headline. The sub-header should include what the news is, piquing the curiosity of journalists who need to find an angle. The unusual aspect of the sub-header and headline is that you should switch from writing in past tense to active (or present) tense. Make it sounds like news, as if you’re a TV news host reading from an autocue.

Once you’ve nailed the sub-header, writing the headline should be easier. The process of writing a press release is like reducing a sauce over time, starting with lots of ingredients and pulling them together to form a rich, delicious broth! The headline is the final piece of the jigsaw.

Some people prefer to start with the headline, so find your own feet and see what’s best for you. Follow the guidelines of standard practice, but bend the rules a little bit. In the process, you’ll bring a bit of yourself to the job, and that’s what makes you stand out as a professional copywriter.

Take your skills to the next level

Press releases aren’t as cut and dried as you think, as there are many different types. For example, product launches, events, business news such as mergers and acquisitions, recruitment news, awards, and so on. For each type of press release, there’s a way to write them. But now you have the foundational skills to make a start with any of these. Think story, find the narrative, look for your characters, and remember to always think of helping the journalist.

My final bit of advice is to read lots of press releases. Make a list of how you could improve them, and save examples you think are great. You can learn so much from reading the work of others.

Get into more depth with this post by enrolling on my Skillshare course.

Main image by Madison on Pexels.

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