Download the classic press release template here (zip bundle with Microsoft Word and Apple Pages included).
Reading time: 7 minutes
In 1906, near Gap, Pennsylvania, a terrible train accident killed 50+ people.
The accident was, of course, a tragedy for everyone involved, but potentially also a disaster for the Pennsylvania Railroad. They retained one of the first public relations agencies, Parker & Lee. The agency had been founded only a year before the accident in 1905 as the third PR agency in the US.
One of the founders, the legendary PR professional Ivy Lee, wanted to help the Pennsylvania Railroad, his first major client, to get the right story out, so he crafted the first ever press release. And rather than trying to suppress the story, which was common practice at this time, he invited the press to the scene. In spite of the unfortunate accident, the Pennsylvania Railroad got good press coverage for managing the disaster well.
Keeping the press (and the public) up to date with an official statement is still something we at times need to do. So how do you write a classic press release?
The Elements of a Classic Press Release
The classic press release format is no rocket science. But writing a press release can still be tricky. Download a classic press release template (with a dummy press release example) here (zip bundle with Microsoft Word and Apple Pages included):DOWNLOAD TEMPLATES (.doc, .pages)
You’ve probably seen it, “FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE.” It’s a legal thing (it shows that this information is intended for distribution) and it also works as a placeholder in your template (this is where it says “DRAFT” or “DO NOT DISTRIBUTE” while you’re collaborating with your colleagues prior to releasing the information.
It can also be used if you’re sending out the release to journalist beforehand, “EMBARGOED UNTIL …”. Just remember that journalists are free to disregard your “embargoed” press release and publish the information immediately1.
You should include the date of sending the press release out. Some try to avoid putting the date on the press release. I guess they worry that someone will stumble upon it at a later date and disregard it, but that would be a douchebag move on your part. Just add the fucking date.
The headline should include the brand name and be descriptive rather than witty or smart. Press release titles can be very long, though. The idea is to give the reader the full scope just from reading the title. The title is often in bold and a larger font, but this won’t work for plain-text wire releases. Also, press releases in English often have all important words capitalized, but this is often confusing for non-English speakers. Writing the headline in all-caps solves both of these problems.
For global wire releases, it sometimes makes sense to add the city from which the press release originates from. Both the date and the city are often added right before the intro.
The intro should summarize the press release in 2-4 sentences. This is the part that’s most difficult to write; it should include everything that’s already in the headline, but still, add more detail and context. The sentences should not be too long, nor should they be too complex. A good test is to read them out loud — if it sounds natural in plain speak, you should be good.
There content consists of descriptive paragraphs and quotes. A good rule-of-thumb is to alternate between them. If your first paragraph under the intro is a quote, the next one should be a descriptive paragraph, and then a quote again, and so on. Also: If any of your sentences is longer than 25 words, consider shortening them.
Signal the end of the news item by adding three consecutive hash signs, “###”.
Today, you have so many options for adding valuable resources to your press release; videos, infographics, pre-written social media updates, background information, data sets, press photos, royalty-free graphics, etc. You should at least link back to an online version of your press release. (Hyperlinks can mess it all up; your organization should invest in a branded domain for shortening long URLs.)
Most press releases include the incredibly weak call-to-action2 “For more information, please contact …”. Instead, you should explain what exactly your listed contact person can provide to anyone who decides to get in touch.
A standardized description of your brand and business. It shouldn’t be cute or cool, just informative. Most organizations have standardized approved boilerplates, but if I can, I make sure to add a boilerplate that works well with the content of the press release.
Download your copy of my classic press release template here (zip bundle with Microsoft Word and Apple Pages included):DOWNLOAD TEMPLATES (.doc, .pages)
Basic Press Release Guidelines
Maybe you’ve downloaded the template already and started writing. But writing a press release is more than just filling out a template. Here are some important things to keep in mind:
You could turn your press release into an interactive microsite with mouse-over effects and pop-up tooltips. But for most purposes, your press release must work in plain, unformatted, text. There are two basic reasons for this:
Reason 1. You should never send an unsolicited email to a journalist or a news editor with any type of code enclosed. You should never add your press release as a pdf to your email, or add any graphic files. And yes, this includes your company logo. Just add the press release to your email in plan text.
Reason 2. When sending out a press release using a wire service (like PRNewswire or PRweb), you’ll have to provide your press release in plain text as well. Some wire services allow you to upload online resources like videos or infographics as well.
Your press release should never be longer than two pages (unformatted), including all the different parts described above. Ideally, one page should suffice for most types of send-outs. Using two full pages might be reasonable if your company has discovered the cure for cancer, but even then I don’t think you’ll need more than one page.
Keeping it brief will most likely only work in your favor. If you’re struggling to shorten your press release, remember William Strunk Jr.’s legendary writing advice:
“Omit needless words.”
Writing quotes often takes some getting used to. Here are a few good rules:
Avoid all qualifiers (good, great, unique, impressive, perfect, solid, etc.).
Back any expressed emotions with evidence (don’t just have someone say that they are happy or proud, explain exactly why).
Avoid using complex sentences (people don’t actually use them when they talk).
Avois all types of “fluff” (there should be no empty phrases in the quote, only substance).
Avoid “humble-bragging” (focus instead on the problem/conflict that’s been resolved).
A good way to start is to answer all the basic questions first:
This should give you six relevant paragraphs to start with. But before you start working with these paragraphs, you should focus on describing one key element as clearly as you possibly can:
Focus on conflict.
A typical newbie error when creating press releases is to focus the content on how great everything thing is. But why should anyone care? The conflict3 must be present in the title, in the intro, and in at least one descriptive paragraph and one quote.
You might have heard about “social media news releases” or “social press releases” — releases adapted for social media distribution. And this is what your online newsroom should be used for. Via your newsroom, you can provide a journalists with a url pointing to suggested social media updates, share-friendly quotes (soundbites), videos, infographics etc. It’s good practice to link to more online resources in your newsroom at the end of your classic press release.
The Classic Press Release Template
Download your copy of Doctor Spin’s classic press release template here (zip bundle with Microsoft Word and Apple Pages template):DOWNLOAD TEMPLATES (.doc, .pages)
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