One of the basic tasks of a Public Relations Executive is writing a press release. This is essential as part of efforts to ensure effective press relations. The press release is a vital tool organisations use to keep the public abreast of its position on issues and dissemination of vital information as often as required. Writing a press release is no child’s play, that is why anyone who wishes to master the art of press release writing has to understand the basic steps in doing so, including the primary contents of a well written release.
Meaning of Press Release
A press release is a document which primarily contains information an organization wants to disseminate to the public through the press. It is also called news release, press statement, media release or news announcement. It could be written or recorded. The recorded version is the audio or audio/visual press release. A press release is an official statement an organization issues to the news media on an issue.
Writing of the Press Release
Writing a press release goes beyond putting down on paper what a news source wants the public to hear and writing the words “Press Release” on top of the paper. This is what most news sources do these days and when such releases don’t get published, the originators of the release complain that it was not considered because they did not give any inducement to journalists.
What such news sources do not know is that a badly written press release may not see the light of the day. Apart from being newsworthy, the press release also has to be well written for it to survive the risk of not being considered by a journalist who is faced with doing a lot of stories in one day. The news release has to be newsworthy and in most cases well written to survive the competition posed by other equally good stories. Most journalists will not waste their time fiddling with a not –so-good news release especially when there are other good stories to write. Only when there is scarcity of stories will such press releases receive attention from a journalist who attempts to make out something from it.
Journalists are often heard complaining of badly written press releases which news angle is often difficult to see. You could hear a journalist saying “what kind of press release is this? I don’t even know how to start looking at it!” Once this is said, the release is kept aside for other good ones and it stands the risk of getting stale before being given a second chance or second consideration. Under this circumstance, the aim of suing the news release to break the brown envelope barrier become defeated because brown envelope may now be the only option to ‘motivate’ a journalist to look at such badly written news release and attempt to knock out a story from it, even if it means doing so reluctantly.
At this point it becomes pertinent to take a look at what could go a badly written press release so that one could know what characterizes a bad release and avoid such. This will help in knowing what the content of a publishable press release should be or what could be called a good release.
The Bad Press Release: This refers to badly written press or news release. Content is usually not the problem here but writing the release to make it worthy of receiving attention and getting published. Bad press releases are not difficult to discover. They mostly do not have any news angle or news value but just a mere analysis or documentation of what the writer has in mind which could have been written in a better way.
When the news release is too verbose or lengthy it becomes a badly written release or the bad release as it is referred to in this chapter. Even if the news release is short but it does not discuss specific issues, it could also fall into the category of badly written news releases. The target of the news source should be to produce a press release that will not stand the risk of being discarded by the journalist that is supposed to work on it. This is because there is always a need to re-write the press release in most cases to suit the style of the publication that will carry it. There are instances where a press release written in straight news format gets published as it is but one or two amendments are often made on such press release.
It could be argued that since a press release is usually re-written by journalists, no press release should be viewed as bad one. Why not put down anything and allow the journalist to put a professional touch on the press release while re-writing it? It is pertinent to note that a journalist who has many stories to write will not take a second look at a badly written press release. This is why it is good to avoid issuing bad releases. The aim of suing press releases to break the brown envelope barrier will be completely defeated also.
A badly written press release often does not make a position statement or call for a particular part to be toed. A journalist picks such a release and wonders what the writer intended to achieve by writing it. A press release should not be mistaken for an essay or ordinary letter. It is written for the public to know the position of a news source concerning an issue or for the public to get fresh information concerning an issue, among other reasons. Once these points are missing, it becomes a bad press release. The journalist should be able to see a point to kick–start his story from otherwise he will be frustrated into discarding the release for other competing press releases.
For instance, a leader of a notable pressure group in Enugu usually gives journalists press releases considered to be badly written in all departments of a news release. He makes so many newspaper quotations in the release that he fails to say exactly what he wants to achieve with the press release. Before he even starts analyzing the quotations, the press release would have become a lecture of many pages. Once journalists see press release from the man, they immediately conclude that it will not be published and use the back of the voluminous press release to write other stores. The writer’s over-dependence on irrelevant quotations and analysis has made him not to achieve anything with the press release.
A bad release often fails to answer the 5 Ws and H required for it to become a good news story. The 5 Ws and H are who, what, when, why, where and how. It is important to answer these questions where the press release is to be re-written in straight news format for publication. Otherwise the writer of such release can pay the media organization some fee so that the press release will be used verbatim as a paid – publication. Here, garbage-in-out formula obtains and the writer could advertise his ignorance through a badly written press release published as a paid-piece.
There is need to avoid issuing badly written press release to media houses if the news sources wishes to break the brown envelope barrier with the press release strategy. The news source should know that there are other press releases his own is competing with for the space of a newspaper or air time in a broadcast medium. Badly written press releases often do not see the light of the day.
The Good Press Release: This refers to a well written press release with good news value which gives journalists a pleasure to work on. The good release or well written press release is the key to a brown envelope gate. A reporter who gets hold of a good/well written press release will send the report even before the writer of the press release realizes what has happened. This is to say that nobody will expect him, to produce any brown envelope before the release gets published. You don’t need to monitor the news release to know whether the journalist has written it, if it’s a good one.
If the issue you are writing on is of great news value but is badly presented in the press release, the entire press release could still be discarded by a journalist. Ensuring that the press release is well written will only brighten the chances of the story getting published. This is why a knowledge of how to write a good press release cannot be down-played.
The press release writer should know the basic things a well written press release is set to achieve, the news value of such release not withstanding. These basic goals are captured in Jefkins’ (1977:19) three-fold purpose of good and correct presentation of a News release. They are;
- to achieve legibility;
- to make the release attractive; and
- to minimize editorial work so that the release is capable of publication as it stands.
In addition to having news value or being news worthy, the press release should also achieve the above objectives as stated by Jefkins (1977). The pertinence of achieving Jefkins’ three-fold purpose of press release was buttressed by another communication scholar, Schrank (1980:243). He observed that press release is usually written so that it could get published the way it was written. Schrank’s observation goes to support what had earlier been pointed out in this chapter that press release could be written in forms that could get published with little or no amendment, provided it is tailored to the house style of the newspaper. This saves the time that would have been used in rewriting the entire release. However, for the press release to stand the chance of being published as it is, it has to be presented in “journalistically acceptable and usable form” (May in Udofia et al, 1987:34).
A good press release should be concise and straight to the point. Jefkins (1977:243) opines that the key point should be made in the first paragraph. According to him, two important statements should be borne in mind in writing a good news release;
(1) The secret of a good release is that the opening paragraph should summarize the whole story;
(2) If all that is printed is the first paragraph, the message has been published.
The press release writer should strive to achieve this in order to ensure that the main points will not be cut off by the gatekeeper while working on the press release. The gatekeeper in question can as well decide to rewrite and start the story from another paragraph aside from the first, as contained in the release.
You must not write uncountable pages before you make your point. Bear in mind that the press release could be thrown out or rewritten. It could also be used as it is, especially if it is written in a straight news format. You could beat a busy reporter by writing the release in a straight news format so that he will not have much problem cracking his brain in searching for a lead. The writer of the press release then has to know how to write news story to be able to adopt a news-format press release strategy.
When a press release is written on an issue perceived to be alien to a reporter, the news source should try to give a short, one or two paragraph background to the release to enable the reporter rewrite or work on the release from a familiar perspective. If the issue is topical, the release writer should go straight to the point and let the aim of writing the release be seen.
Nwosu and Idemili (1992:189) summed up what makes a good press release by observing that in order to attract or appeal to reporters and editors, “a good press release must abide by the common rules of good writing and good style.”
A good press release should have a heading that contains action verbs, the first paragraph should answer the “who,” “what,” “why,” and “where”, says Hannah Fleishman. The press release should also contain understandable language and a quote. It should be written in simple, easy-to-understand English. Fleishman further says most press releases are succinct at just a page long – two pages, tops. Ultimately, companies want to provide enough information so that news outlets have sufficient material for publishing their own stories about whatever the company is announcing in the release.
The format of writing the release should also be considered so that the release could look attractive on face value. It should be typed in double-space format and only on one side of a foolscap paper. Skeletally relevant data about the organization writing the release should appear on top of the first page. Such information includes name of organization, address, phone and fax numbers and whom to make further inquiries from. This data could be contained in a letter-headed paper of the organization which is often used to type the first page. Don’t forget to sign the release. Indicate date and release time, that is, the date you want the medium to publish or air the news release. For instance, you could want your view about an event like Children’s Day Celebration to be published on the day of the event which could be a Friday. But the press release to that effect may have been issued to media organizations on a Monday or Tuesday. The release time will tell the reporter when you want the story to be out. This is not strictly observed in most press releases especially those not attached to special events that are time bound. Otherwise the date you normally have on the press release is the day it was issued to the press.
Press Release Sample
THE COLD-BLOODED KILLING OF PROFESSOR CHIMERE IKOKU HEIGHTENS STATE OF INSECURITY AND FEAR IN ENUGU STATE
The Civil Liberties Organization (CLO), Southeast Zone, received with utter shock, the news of the brutal and dastardly killing, on Sunday October 13, 2002 of Professor Chimere Ikoku, former Vice Chancellor of the University of Nigeria (UNN) by two unidentified gun men who operated in a motorbike.
The CLO notes with serious concern that the killing of Professor Ikoku, is coming barely one month after the brutal killing, by suspected assassins, of Chief (Engr.) Victor Nwankwo, Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of the Fourth Dimension Publishers, Enugu, who was similarly shot dead on Thursday August 29, 2002. The Police are yet to unravel the killer of Chief Nwankwo, and no less than two other less prominent citizens who have also been killed within the city of Enugu alone, within the same period by rampaging gun men.
The motive behind Prof. Ikoku’s brutal killing and those behind it are not immediately known to the CLO, but, like Chief Nwankwo’s, the circumstances point to assassination. Though, the killers demanded for N1 million naira, it is strongly believed that this was a mere smokescreen to conceal their real motive, as they did not eventually take any cash or valuable except the Professor’s GSM handset, with which he was engaged in a conversation before the killers stormed in, dragging his wife along. The Professor was first slapped and then shut before the killers left on their motorbike.
The CLO notes that what is happening in Enugu speaks of the dangerous phenomenon of serial killing, and is therefore worried that the failure and/or neglect of the police to unravel, arrest and prosecute the actual perpetrators and their sponsors will further heighten public fear and keep every resident of the city wondering who may be the next victim. The police must solve this puzzle.
The organization condemns the alleged callousness and insensitivity exhibited by the medical personnel of the various hospitals where Professor Ikoku was taken for treatment before he gave up the ghost four hours later. The Medical personnel were said to have refused him treatment, insisting on the production of a police report, even while he was bleeding profusely and in a critical condition.
The CLO considers this as unprofessional, sadistic, barbaric and a reprehensible act of negligence. The Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria guarantees citizens’ inalienable right to life. Medical personnel are trained and obligated to serve and preserve life. Any law or practice, therefore, that insists on the production of a mere police report, before a life could be saved is unjust, immoral, unconstitutional, null and void.
In me particular case of Professor Ikoku, he was a prominent figure who held several public offices at the national level, and ought to have been easily identified.
The CLO believed that even an ordinary citizen brought to a hospital, carrying gunshot injuries, and requiring emergency attention, should be treated as a patient while information is being passed on to the police, simultaneously, if necessary.
The organization argues further that even for an armed robbery suspect, the primary goal should be to save life and let the suspect face trial later. It is therefore, unconscionable for any medical personnel trained to save and preserve life to fold arms and watch a patient die an avoidable death on account of any flimsy excuse or senseless law, as was the case of Professor Ikoku.
The CLO is worried at the apparent helplessness of the security forces and authorities in the State and feels the need for the Federal Government to intervene urgently in order to assist the State in restoring peace, safety and the characteristic serenity of the city of Enugu. CLO warns that if the puzzle of serial killing in the State is not solved, and if the State police command fails to find the actual killers of Professor Ikoku, and others before him, this may precipitate a situation of self-help whereby people may resort to their desperate ways to secure their security.
Signed by ……………………………
(This press release has enough background support for the journalist to enrich his story.)
(Part of this article was first published in the book “Anatomy of Brown Envelope Syndrome”)