After being interviewed by reporters, I’ve heard many people complain that the news media “just can’t get it right.” Whether it’s a live TV interview or some other encounter with a reporter, most of us have been victims of erroneous reporting. However, if you want to boost the odds of reporters getting it right, put it in writing. And for the public information officer (PIO), the primary way to do that is with a news release.
News releases – or press releases for those who prefer the more antiquated term – are your official written statements that are released to the news media. Reporters appreciate them because the facts are right there in print. PIOs appreciate them because reporters are less likely to get the facts wrong. And if they do get it wrong, PIOs can point them back to the news release to show them where they strayed.
Good news releases can take many forms. I use two kinds. The less common one I use is for planned events (e.g. news conferences) where I physically hand them out to reporters. Those are printed on department letterhead, with my name and contact information at the bottom of the release. The type I use on a daily basis is written in our department’s records software, converted into a Portable Document Format (PDF) file and then e-mailed, but it has all the essential elements of a typical news release. An example of a typical news release is included with this article that you can download. So, here are some general tips on news releases, from top to bottom.
The First Thing You See
The first thing most reporters will see when they get a news release is who it’s from. The standard news release will usually have a logo or large, printed text at the very top indicating the department’s name, the name of the city or governmental agency, a street address and general phone numbers. This leaves no doubt who this news release is from.
Often the PIO’s name and pertinent contact information is included at the very top as well. Your contact information is very important. If a reporter has another question or needs clarification, you should be easy to find. Some PIOs prefer to show their name and contact information at the very end of their news releases, which is also fine. The date of your release should also be prominently displayed.
Most news releases have a headline toward the top of the first page. In the case of an e-mail, the headline is in the subject line. Using the words “News Release” as your headline, or in the subject line, is not helpful to reporters and may be ignored. Instead, try to summarize your release in your title (e.g. “House Fire Leaves Four Homeless”). In those five words the reporters have a good idea of what your news release is about.
Many PIOs still include the words “For Immediate Release” toward the top. There is nothing wrong with that, but I personally believe that phrase states the obvious and clutters up your release. Sure, there are exceptions – mostly in the corporate world – but in our business, when you send that release out, that’s pretty much immediate anyway, isn’t it?
The Body of the News Release
As I mentioned in my previous “PIO 101” article, reporters generally want answers to six basic questions: Who? What? When? Where? Why? and maybe How? You may or may not know the answers to the last two questions, or they may not be relevant, but the first four are pretty standard for just about any news release.
The inverted pyramid style is still the best way to present your information. Include the most important facts in the first few sentences, and then add less critical information in subsequent sentences and paragraphs.
To phrase it another way, using the inverted pyramid style “cuts to the chase.” This is no time for small talk, and you’re not writing a novel. You’ve got something to say, but reporters are not inclined to scour every word in your news release to find out what you’re talking about. They are busy and if they can’t figure out what you’re talking about in a few seconds, your news release may quickly find its way into the nearest trash can, or the “deleted” folder.