Public relations is an essential aspect of both digital and traditional marketing, but can be an intimidating subject to those without much experience in this area.
Perhaps the most daunting task of public relations is writing press releases.
If this is something you have never attempted before, it can be difficult to know what to include and how to arrange the information. To top it off, press releases need to be written in AP style, which has very particular criteria for formatting.
Press releases don’t have to be an extremely time-consuming and scary task. That’s why we’ve outlined the essential components of any successful press release.
For the sake of this exercise, I’ve put together a fictional press release, based on the hit Fox/Netflix TV show Arrested Development. Below is the press release in it’s entirety.
The header is the very first section of the press release. This is the section where the iconic “FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE” can be found, followed with the date the press release will be sent out.
This section also contains the contact information for the person writers can get in touch with for more details. Generally, this is the same person who wrote the release, but from time to time, the contact may be a different person. It is important to include at least one way to contact this person; ideally, you will want to include both a phone number and email address.
This section is usually formatted as you see above. “FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE” should always be capitalized and be the first line on the release. On the same line, you will include the name of the primary contact. On the second line, you will include the date the release is being sent out and the phone number of the contact. On the third line you will include the email address of the contact.
“FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE” and the release date should always be left justified, whereas the contact information should be right justified.
The headline immediately follows the header, and is just like a headline in a newspaper. Keeping that in mind, when writing a headline you will want to determine the most important aspect of the release and focus on that.
Now here’s the tricky part - headlines should be no longer than eight words. They can be shorter, but generally the hard part is keeping them under that eight word limit.
Luckily, they don’t have to be full sentences. As you can you see above, my headline is only contains the most pertinent information, and comes in at right at eight words. Writing compelling headlines in eight words takes some practice and brainstorming, so this a good thing to be thinking about before starting the press release, or even while writing it.
Headlines are also generally written in present tense, even though the rest of the press release will be primarily and past tense. However, this rule of thumb can be broken if absolutely necessary.
Dateline & Lead
The dateline and lead comprise the very first line following the headline, and should be their own paragraph.
The dateline is simply the city name followed by a dash. The city name should always be capitalized, and in most cases should be followed by the state abbreviation. In my example above, the state abbreviation is left off as according to AP style, some major cities do not need to be followed by the state abbreviation.
The lead is the sentence immediately following the date line, and should include the most crucial parts of the story. Generally, you will want to include who, what, and when in the lead. Like headlines, leads have a work limit - in this case, 32 words. Keeping a lead under this word limit is typically not too challenging, but if it is, remember that you have an entire page to flesh out the story. Always keep the lead simple, easy to understand, and include the most crucial and compelling aspects of the story.
The body of a press release is everything following the dateline and lead. This is where you get to flesh out the story you have introduced in the headline and lead. The critical elements in the body of a press release are more details about the story and quotes from people related to the story.
I like to include at least two quotes, and generally no more than three. Good quotes can add perspective to a release, and it can be beneficial to have quotes from more than one person. If possible, quotes should be placed in the release right before or right after a paragraph they are related to. Quotes should not be placed back-to-back.
Correctly formatting quotes is relatively easy. Here are some simple rules to follow:
- Use quotation marks around quotes
- Separate more than one sentence in a quote with “said [person].”
- Use a comma after the first sentence of a quote; do not use a period
- If the quote is from a person who has not been referenced in the release prior to the quote, use both first and last name, as well as job title or some other reference to how they are related to the story
- If they have been referenced in the release prior to the quote, only use their last name. First and last name can be used if others in the story have the same last name
When including more details about the story, be sure you have covered who, what, when, where, why, and how. These aspects of the story should be broken into multiple paragraphs for easy reading.
It can also be beneficial to include some background on the person or company that is featured in the story, as well as a way to learn more or get in touch with the person or company.
You’re probably wondering why there are three pound signs at the bottom of this press release.
Those three pound signs mean that the reader has reached the end of the press release. This is included as a courtesy to writers to let them know they have received the press release in it’s entirety, and are not missing any pages.
Alternatively, -30- or End can be used in place of the pound signs. While the inclusion of any of these may seem unnecessary, it is industry standard and one form should be included at the end of every press release.
While we have gone through every piece of a successful press release, there are a couple more important ideas I want to cover.
The Inverted Pyramid
The inverted pyramid is a pillar of journalistic writing, and refers to the flow of any press release or article.
As you can see in the graphic above, the inverted pyramid begins with “most newsworthy information,” moves on to “important details,” and concludes with “other general or background information.” This is the order that all press releases should follow.
Press releases begin with the headline and lead, which should contain the most newsworthy information being presented in the release. The next few paragraphs and/or quotes should include other details that are important to the story. Finally, the last few paragraphs should contain general information.
The inverted pyramid is used so that readers can easily find the most important information in a release, and don’t have to read the entire thing to find the primary topic. Those who are interested in the topic can continue reading to find out more information.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this blog, all press releases should be written in AP style, the formatting guidelines maintained by the Associated Press.
There are far too many guidelines to be covered in a blog post, but there is an easy way to learn and remember them: The AP Stylebook.
The AP Stylebook includes hundreds of pages of AP style guidelines, organized alphabetically. It is an extremely helpful affordable source for anyone writing press releases.
A new stylebook is released every year; however, it is not necessary to get a new one each year. AP style guidelines are updated to reflect changes in technology and society, but most of the guidelines stay the same from year to year. As long as you keep an ear to the ground for major guideline updates, keeping one stylebook for several years will not be any issue.
Now that you know the anatomy of successful press release, it’s time to start writing! With enough time and practice, you’ll be publishing perfect press releases every time.