PIO 101: The Anatomy of an Effective News Release

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...

After you’ve offered up the most obvious facts in the first few sentences, you can include other pertinent information. Referring to that headline I mentioned earlier, who are the four people left homeless? How many adults versus children? Was anyone injured? How bad was the damage? What caused the fire? These questions and more can be addressed in the body of your news release.

Accuracy is absolutely essential to your job. You will usually get your facts from people in your own department, and occasionally from other departments. Regardless of your sources, double-check those facts. Sending out news releases that are factually inaccurate will damage your credibility, and the credibility of your entire department.

Ending Your News Release

There isn’t much to this, but many PIOs will signify the end of the release with symbols traditionally used by reporters, such as ### or – 30 – or even – End –. As I mentioned earlier, some PIOs end their releases with their name and contact information.

Sending Out Your News Release

The electronic revolution has certainly had its impact on PIOs. I remember when faxing news releases was a big deal. Now, most PIOs I know send out their news releases by e-mail. It’s so easy now to type up your release and send it out to individual reporters and entire news organizations simultaneously with just the click of a mouse.

As for specific tips, you should compose your news release with word processing software that most people can use on their PCs and Macs. There are a number of text styles to choose from and everyone has their favorite. I use Times New Roman, but many others are fine. Just make sure the font is easy to read and large enough so reporters don’t need a magnifying glass to see it.

To make it truly easy for reporters to read my news release, I send my PDF version as an attachment, and also paste the text of the news release into the “body” of the e-mail so that it’s visible as soon as you open it. Internet news sites in Chattanooga often copy the text verbatim and display it on their websites. That’s a huge advantage because the release is not being altered in any way.

Using Photos with News Releases

It’s been said that a picture is worth a thousand words. Assuming that’s true, PIOs in the fire service have an advantage over our counterparts in law enforcement, because fire-rescue scenes are generally more visually interesting. Why not take advantage of that opportunity and take photos to show your firefighters at work? In addition to the sample news release you can download, a photo that accompanied that release is also included.

Attaching a photo or two with your news release is the proverbial icing on the cake. News outlets often post my photos on their various web sites, and occasionally they appear in the local paper and in TV newscasts. In some cases, those photos were then picked up by the Associated Press and other syndicated news services and sent around the world.

If you start using photos, here are a few tips. Try to frame your photos to show your firefighters, your apparatus (especially your department logo) and the fire all in the same photo. A photo of a fire with no firefighters is okay, but a photo of a fire with firefighters is better. Still better is a photo of a fire, with firefighters, putting water on the flames (see sample fire photos). The intent here is to not just show the fire, but to show your firefighters working diligently to put the fire out. This presents a clear illustration to area residents and your elected officials that the money spent on your department is money well spent, and that you might even deserve a little more!

Next time: Tips for Media Interviews

BRUCE GARNER is the public information director for the Chattanooga Fire Department, a Class 2 ISO fire department in southeast Tennessee. He has a B.A. in English from Lee College (now Lee University) and was a former radio/TV reporter before switching to the other side of the microphone. After serving 10 years as a PIO with Hamilton County Emergency Services, he accepted his current position with the Chattanooga Fire Department, where he has been for the past 12 years. Utilizing his experience with emergency management, he has also served as chairman of the Hamilton County Local Emergency Planning Committee for six years, and is a member of the National Information Officers Association and Public Relations Society of America. You can reach him by e-mail at garner_b@chattanooga.gov.