I have been on the receiving end of thousands of PR pitches in my career, and I’ve also sent a few. There are definitely good and not-great tactics for writing press releases, but there are also good and not-so-good ways of sending them. How you target media, clean up a list, and personalize your email pitch is of equal or more importance to what’s in the press release.
Since PR is blurring lines with content marketing and social media, the field is in an interesting state of flux. Compared to journalism it’s clicking along — but it’s also an industry where to succeed you need to shift between many roles. So, if you’ve landed here because your background is the publishing world or social media management, and you’ve been tasked with PR outreach for a client and are trying to get it right — good on you for doing your research. That, in itself, is a crucial, often overlooked part of PR.
Here are other tips to help you get the media’s attention and not alienate them.
Press release best practices: Top 7 do’s
1. Do determine newsworthiness.
What about your information makes it current, relevant, and interesting enough to be published in an outlet? Think it through before you write. Don’t just default to “because my VP asked for it.” Even if that’s true, it won’t convince anyone who doesn’t work for your VP. The information has to be useful to them.
2. Do answer the 5 W’s (who, what, where, when, why).
Do this even more efficiently and succinctly than a lifestyle journalist would. Whatever the most important piece of news is, get it out there immediately. If there are other interesting facts to support a larger story, put them in the first half of the page.
3. Do fact-check everything you put in a press release. You are playing with fire if you don’t.
The other day I got one announcing the “first-ever vegan potato chip brand” and it absolutely ruined the entire brand for me. Do you not know what potatoes are? I wondered… and responded. Turns out the brand had an inspirational entrepreneur founder, a great packaging gimmick, and an enormous retail partnership to announce. But all I remember is “vegan potatoes.”
4. Do go light on — or remove all — cutesy slang.
Any reference to girl bosses, mompreneurs, sipping the tea, “on fleek” or even “content is king” immediately gives your press release a limited shelf-life and audience.
5. Do pack your press release with relevant keywords.
A lot of journalists hang onto them and run inbox searches much later when they’re working on stories and need to include an additional company or quote at the last minute. Make it easy for them to retrieve your presser.
6. Do include at least one quote from someone integral to the press release.
Two quotes from two people is better, especially if one of them is a credible industry expert not in the company. That’s enough for many journalists to build a news post out of, and in this era of rushing to feed the content beast, many of the will.
7. Do keep it short — two-thirds of a page is good.
Because the bottom third goes to the boilerplate.
In most cases, the boilerplate that goes at the bottom of a press release is already written and proofed, and you shouldn’t have to do anything with it. At most, you’ll have to make a couple of tweaks if it hasn’t been updated. This condensed version of an About Us section includes key information about the company’s background, mission and milestones. Contact info for more information on the release typically goes in the same area.
Tips for pitching your press release
Even PR people who say “the press release is dead” continue to send out press releases, just in a slightly different format. Maybe they’ll put their presser in the body of an email instead of an attached document. Maybe they’ll attempt to write it like an article. Maybe they’ll cleverly attempt to sneak their client’s news into a trend pitch. If they’re still including the hook and the facts and the quotes, and they still want media to pick it up, then it’s basically a press release.
The targeted intro letter
Short, personalized and often offering “just the facts” in a truncated casual style, the intro letter can sell a pitch as well as a press release. Usually, the intro letter is what hooks the reader, while the press release is where they go for more information.
What can you offer (or shouldn’t)?
- Research and stats? A unique offering that fits with an upcoming season or holiday? An extra-informed perspective? Access to interesting experts?
- There’s an overwhelming tendency among certain by-the-book PRs to offer “images” and “an interview with the CEO” (or other executive). Smart pitchers know that in many niches, “images” means “We’d like to clog up your available memory space immediately!” and “interview with an exec” means “rehearsed soundbite plugging the company.”
- If you’re pitching access to experts, think about offering a chef, a financial expert, a dermatologist, a scientist, a nutritionist… anyone who has some sort of interesting expertise beyond corporate leadership and isn’t media-trained to only offer three sentences.
Top 5 press release don’ts: Pitches PRs toss aside
1. Don’t push executive promotions.
News of a corporate staffer being promoted is usually not of interest, unless it’s someone in the C-Suite, and probably not even then. You can, of course, send the news out to a limited list of trade media — the promotion of a regional director of a gas station chain might appeal to the readers of Convenience Store News — but it’s not appropriate to send to a wider list.
2. Don’t request post facto inclusions.
Don’t pitch for your client to be included in stories that already happened: “I saw that story you did last week on reverse mortgages. Any chance you can sneak my client in?”
No. Once a story is published, it’s done.
3. Don’t nag with general inquiries.
Avoid trying to earn traction with overly general requests: “Hey there, we’ve signed this cool new client that is an innovator and entrepreneur in the CBD space. You working on anything where he could be an expert?”
Nobody likes this.
4. Don’t attempt distasteful news-jacking.
It happens, and it’s sad. Don’t attempt distasteful news-jacking that has nothing to do with you: “Hello! You’ve probably heard of the untimely death/assault allegations/painful infidelity that such-and-such celebrity is going through. My client has never worked for or even met that celebrity, but he has expert comments!”
What we think when we see these pitches: Your client is a vulture.
5. Don’t offer “the ditto of the day.”
“The ditto of the day” is anything that lots of other people are pitching at the exact same time. Don’t be that ditto. It’s tough to explain this when your company has won an industry award and the boss wants to share. However, to illustrate this point, I always like to show the following screenshot from the day after the Inc. 5000 list was published. I was consulting for a company that made the list, and the founder was delighted about the Inc award and thought he would base his entire PR strategy around it.
Apparently many other small business owners had the same thought.
The only standout pitch in this queue is “Sexy Couples Boudoir Photos” — I don’t know quite what they want people to write about, but at least it’s something different from everyone else in my inbox.
Before sending your pitch and press release, please check…
Once you’ve crafted a good pitch, you may think — or have been told — that you just pop it into the ol’ automated email platform and hit “send.” This is NOT the best approach. Check your intent and work.
- Research every name to whom you are sending.
- If your pitch has a location-based angle, where is each person based? Is this appropriate to send to them based on their location?
- Do they still cover your topic?
- How often do they seem to cover it?
- Send every pitch individually if possible. It may not be as easy to track open rates, but mass blasts get sent to junk mail, so figure out a way.
- Spell names right! Above all, don’t let your mail program send your greeting out as “Dear [Name]” — you will be dragged.
You may think all these tips are silly or unneeded. However, PRs break every rule, every day, to the point that the ones who do respect good business practice truly stand out. It’s not so hard, really: Write great press releases, better intro letters, and spend two minutes researching each prospect before you hit send.