Natasha Martineau explains the dos and don'ts of writing and sending a press release — and getting your news to make a splash.
A press release is a short summary of a piece of news, which you can use to publicise the key elements of your story to journalists. Its most important feature is that it needs to be topical — it should make clear what's new. You can also use press releases as part of a marketing strategy to publicise a forthcoming event.
What should a press release contain?
The most effective press releases are written to a standard and simple formula:
- Write in the active voice;
- Use everyday language and avoid (or explain) all jargon, technical terms and acronyms;
- Put the most interesting things at the start; and
- Results and conclusions go before the background, method and so on (i.e. the opposite way round to a scientific research paper).
Needs to be brief, contain major key words, and say exactly what the story is about.
The five Ws
The opening paragraph should answer the following questions:
- Who (is involved/did the research)?
- What (is new)?
- Where (is the research / publication)?
- When (does it take place/get published)?
- Why (is it new)?
For example: "Police [who] used tear gas to disperse protesters ripping down posters [what] in Indian-controlled Kashmir [where] yesterday [when] as tensions increased before next week's state election [why]."
Body of the release
Should contain further information about your story and set it in a familiar context. Stick to key points that support your message, and don't get too technical.
Include a brief quote from someone directly involved with the story. It should sound like something someone could say, not what he or she might have written.
It is crucial to provide in and out of hours (international) telephone and email information for the press office and other individuals involved with the story (with their agreement).
Notes to editors
Include brief factual biographical information about the people or organisations involved with the story.
Advertising these opportunities to journalists may increase the chance of your story being covered if it is linked to something visual happening, or involves a celebrity. Journalists may bring their own photographers/cameramen. Include clear date, time and location details.
Give the specific URL of further information on a website.
News release services are likely to require keywords to help identify/search for the story.
These outline a time and date before which a story cannot be published, giving journalists extra time in advance to research and prepare a story. An embargo ensures that the story breaks when you want it to. Make it clearly visible at the top of the first page (for example 00.01 GMT). Your embargo should match those placed by any publication associated with your story. Journalists who break embargoes should be removed from your press distribution list.
Distributing a press release
Deciding on whom you are targeting will help you decide on how you want to send out your release. Journalists often receive far more press releases than they have space or time to cover, so sending out your release intelligently is as important as writing it in the first place.
Before you send it out
Always make sure all parties mentioned in the press release agree to it (especially for quotes and contact details). Inform any interested parties, people or organisations about your release before you send it out to journalists.
Whom should I send it to?
Identify a named journalist (on a relevant news desk — science/news/local/national), and send your release straight to them. Your choice of journalist should be informed by the message you want to get across.
When should I send it?
Depends on the source of the story, and also which journalists you want to cover it. Think about embargoes (you will need to keep to deadlines of any associated journal). Some days of the week (for example towards the beginning) are better than others (for example when competing stories come out).
Some countries may have politically 'quiet' times of the year, which may leave more space for other stories. Avoid competing against significant national or international events unless your story has relevance to them.
How should I send it?
Obvious channels of communication include post, fax, e-mail and websites. Make sure all letters and faxes are clearly addressed to a named journalist; maybe follow up with a phone call (mornings better).
Put a brief title in the email subject line of that summarises the story; include the release in the body of the message not as an attachment.
Putting your release on your own website is a good reference point (you will need to tell journalists it's there) and enables links to relevant sources of further information and pictures. You can also post on other web-based news services regularly visited by journalists (for example AlphaGalileo and EurekAlert).
When distributing pictures, always include a caption and photo credit; put it on a website and include a direct link to the page in an email (do not send as an attachment). Make sure any hard copies are good quality.
Following up your press release
After the release is released:
Ensure that you (or an informed colleague) are available for interview, or to provide further background information and explanation once your release reaches a journalist.
Familiarise yourself with how journalists work and what information they will need; be prepared for any question or approach.
Provide prompt and informative answers; equip yourself with basic facts and figures.
Be aware that journalists from abroad may approach you out of hours.
Leave reliable contact details with your colleagues.
Sort out organisational logistics and permission for photographic, sound recording or filming opportunities in advance.
Evaluate your experience: note down questions you find hard to answer.
Keep a record of the press coverage you generate, and inform colleagues, press offices, bosses, funders etc of what you have achieved.
If you don't like the coverage you receive, think about how you could have presented your work in a different way to communicate the message you wanted to get across.
Note the names and contacts of journalists you enjoyed working with, and keep in touch.
Make an archive of your news releases available on your website.
If your story is likely to be contentious or involves several key players with different angles, consider holding a press conference.
Find a venue accessible for journalists; aim for it to last for less than one hour; hold towards the start of the day.
Use a press release and national press association to advertise the conference.
Ensure that speakers are well briefed; encourage short, punchy descriptions of their opinions or outline of their story; limit history or methodology; ask them to identify themselves clearly and speak for 5–10 minutes; do a trial run.
Provide copies of the press release, including speakers' full details and contact details.
Find a chair for the conference who understands both the story and the needs of the media.
Allow time for the journalists to ask questions (prepare speakers with likely questions).
Natasha Martineau is the manager of science interpretation at The Environment Agency, United Kingdom
This article was previously part of SciDev.Net's e-guide to science communication and has been reformatted to become this practical guide.