It’s nearly 13 years since I received my first press release. Back then, you faxed them. If you had a picture, you printed the press release out onto A4 paper, paperclipped your photograph to a bit of board (so that it didn’t bend), put it in an envelope along with a stamp on the front, and dropped it into a postbox. Before the last collection, with any luck.
That sounds like an eternity ago. And I sound like an old man. But that’s how quickly things changed, with email, the internet, smartphones and social media all turning up within a few years of each other.
And that’s great, for loads of reasons to do with cost and access and information. Trouble is, it shredded the rulebook about contacting journalists, sending press releases, monitoring stories. And things kept evolving so quickly that nobody got chance to write a new rulebook, and now it’s all confused. Nobody is really sure what you’re meant to do, or for that matter, not do.
This is not that rulebook. I’d never attempt to write a definitive guide that applied to all professional journalists working today. But I think there is enough of a melee and bad PR practice out there for it to be worth highlighting at least some of it.
Coincidentally, whilst scribbling down the first draft of these notes, I was emailed a report by Muck Rack, which had surveyed journalists to find out what they like and dislike. So I will use some of their stats where they fit. Otherwise, this is mostly just a list of what works and doesn’t work with me, that you may take into account, that might make your PR a grade or two more effective.
Where to find journalists
Last year, I was asked to speak at a “meet a journalist” event where businesses were given the chance to ask the questions they’d always pondered, and by far the most common was, “how do I know who to contact?”
In most instances, people were picking up the phone and ringing the editor, and it wasn’t working for them.
This is because the editor is a person spinning many plates. Commercial meetings, editorial meetings, shaking the hands of the great and the good, mapping out the current edition, the next edition and the edition beyond, overseeing the editorial from his team of writers and contributors and, if there’s any time left at the end of the day, putting together pieces of their own. The editor’s job is not to answer phonecalls about individual stories, in the same way you wouldn’t ring Theo Paphitis if you wanted to know if Ryman stocked Tippex.
If you really want to be in a particular publication, go down to WH Smith and buy it. Or go online and scour its website. Read through the articles it has already published and ask if you can offer something similar in style and tone to what has gone before. Then find out who wrote that article or feature. It’ll say somewhere on the page, or at the very least there will be credits at the beginning of the magazine or on the contacts page online (a bit like the scrolling names at the end of a film). Google the author if it doesn’t already have an email address by it.
Now you have the contact details of somebody that you know is interested in, and writes about, your topic.
If you aren’t sure which publication you should be aiming for, go down to WH Smith and see what’s on the shelves. Who do you want to see your news, and what magazine do you imagine them reading? Google the same question. Ask your customers what publications they read. Search Twitter for people related to your particular topic. Most journalists will have something in their biography that makes them easy to find.
If you’ve got money to throw about, try Cision or Lissted, which compiles lists of interested journalists and publications so that you don’t have to. Your local PR agency will have access to this, or something similar.
How to pitch something a journalist wants to see
Squash that fear you have of contacting somebody who you don’t know. The quality of your ideas will be the main deciding factor.
According to Muck Rack, 91% of journalists will reply to people they don’t even know.
Above, I suggested emailing journalists. That’s because, in 92.8% of cases, that’s their preferred method. Email is something we can access in our own time, when it suits us. We can keep the information on file and search for it later. We can print it out and scribble on it. We can forward it on to somebody who’d be more interested.
Phonecalls were the preferred method of just 3.2% of journalists. You’re almost certainly going to call us at the wrong moment. So stick to email.
Around 2% mentioned social media. Twitter is the favourite of 79% of journalists. Facebook is where people post pictures of their holidays and their kids, so unless it’s explicitly their work account, don’t use that. It’s intrusive and weird.
Now, get to the point. We’re all busy people, so just say what’s what. Try to get to the crux of the story in the first sentence if possible. I have a company that emails me the most grandiose of stories. They can’t tell me they’ve printed a new brochure without first walking me through the history of their industry. Don’t be those guys. Don’t bury the point of your story so deep that it’s missed and deleted.
Nineteen out of 20 journalists surveyed want pitches that are three paragraphs or shorter.
Make sure it’s relevant and interesting.
Your first step should be to look on the website of your chosen publication for a “forward features” list. This will detail what topics they will be covering in future editions. If it’s not on the website, call the general editorial phone number, or drop them an email.
If you’re going rogue and sending a fresh idea, do your homework first and don’t waste everyone’s time by pitching something the journalist can’t even cover. I write for a publication which focuses solely on issues relating to Lancashire. So quite why I get so many emails from a particular university on the south coast is anyone’s guess. That’s a sure-fire way to get future emails deleted without being opened, or even your address flagged as a spammer.
To make sure a story is interesting, I always suggest asking yourself whether your news benefits somebody else. If it doesn’t, then it better blow some socks off.
For example, if you have a new website, nobody cares. That might sound harsh, but every company has a website. It’s not news. If you’ve set up a new networking club, then people outside of your organisation can join in, so that’s much better.
If you’re going to tell me you’ve had a record year, you have to be willing to offer up some figures. I can’t say you’ve made more sales than ever before if you won’t tell me how much that is. And I’m not going to say you’ve doubled your profit without knowing what that was before and now.
Good stories are investing a large sum of money, hiring staff, winning an award (not merely being shortlisted). Something being new isn’t often enough by itself — wait until somebody has something to show for it, then tell everybody.
What goes into a press release
Open your story with who did what. I get hundreds of stories emailed to me every day and I’m not even remotely famous. Still, I don’t have much time to dedicate to each individual email, so I really appreciate it when you get to the point quickly. And for that matter, so do my readers.
A tip I’ve heard a few times is to listen to the news on the TV or radio. At the beginning of each programme, you’ll get a digest of each story coming up, and they’ll outline each story in just a matter of seconds. Work out what yours would sound like, and make that your opener.
If the history is relevant, put it lower down or in the notes at the end. That way I can choose to read it once I know that I’m interested in your story.
Include statistics if something is bigger, more expensive, more cost effective. I like numbers, they are a way to show that something has happened.
If you want to say something is better, that’s only an opinion so try putting it in numbers somehow, or get somebody independent to provide a quote. It’s no good if you yourself thinks that what you’ve done is brilliant. Of course you do.
A typical press release runs between 300 to 400 words. Start with your TV news intro in the first paragraph. Then explore the story more fully over the next few paragraphs, explaining why it happened, and how. This will all be facts so far. To add some colour, give some opinion or an insider’s view in the form of quotes to round off the article.
I’ve heard a couple of times that people won’t put their name to a quote because they don’t like the limelight or they want the achievement to be recognised as a “team effort.” That’s just silliness. Behave.
Don’t say something is unique. Unique means one of a kind, unlike anything else. In 90% of cases it’s used, this isn’t true. In the other 10%*, it’s true, but the word has been so overused that it doesn’t matter and I’m taking it out anyway.
Don’t say something is “leading”. There’s no way to measure if something is leading or not. If you can measure it, say how you measured it instead. Otherwise it’s just a made-up thing.
Don’t use any of these other ten words the Guardian lists. Especially “synergy”. It’s a horrible word and I’m taking it out of your story in ten out of ten instances.
*I just made up that statistic. Never do that.
How to send a press release
Send your press releases by email, with a nice description as a subject. “Press release” is an awful subject line. It tells me nothing and even if I like what you’ve sent, there will be no way for me to ever find it again. “Press release: Widgets plc recruits 50 staff” is much better.
Send your press release either as a Word document or just copy and paste it into the body of the email. Those are both universal. Don’t try to be fancy with any other file type. Especially not PDFs. They are awkward to handle and my day gets a little bit worse whenever I see one.
Please don’t use zip files. Besides them being difficult to search, bad guys use zip files to send viruses. I know there are ways to check if a zip file has a virus in it before I open it, but I really don’t want to be the one to crash the company server by rolling that dice.
Please do send pictures. More on why later, but if your photos are large computer files — and they should be — that’s fine. Use a website such as Dropbox or MailBigFile. Upload your file to the site, email the link, the journalist can download it at their leisure. Voila, a photoset emailed without maxing out anybody’s inbox.
Don’t send a story that’s old. I do a bit of background work before I publish a story and it’s a kiss of death if, while I’m researching, I find the story has already been published somewhere else weeks or even months ago.
Conversely, do put press releases on your website. If I’m reading another publication and they have a story that I want to use, I will need the original version. The first place I’m going to look is under the media section of your company’s website. You get a gold star if you have this and it’s updated on time.
The only time you should follow up is if you’ve already had some dialogue with the journalist and you know they’re interested in your story.
Only if you’ve got an absolute belter of an idea and you genuinely think there’s reason to send a second email should you follow up when you’ve had no reply. But limit yourself to once per story, and be very selective about when you do this.
According to Muck Rack, 28% of journalists said it’s not ok to follow up, and 67% allow it just once. Only 5% won’t hate you for haranguing them.
Don’t be the person who follows up every story. Remember, journalists get hundreds of stories every day. If each one of those got a follow-up email, that’s hundreds more emails. It’s an easy way to get yours deleted and your phone calls answered with “he’s just popped away from his desk”.
Double don’t ask if I’ve run your story. All you’re telling me there is that not only don’t you read my publication, but that you don’t even care enough to take a quick look even though there’s a chance you’re in it.
If you really have no inclination to read the publication I write, then that’s fine by me, I realise this happens, but set up a Google alert or hire a clippings agency instead.
I love good photography, and so should you.
Good photography buys you space on a page. It means you get whatever space your story was going to be, plus an extra bit.
Good photography is not something that was taken on somebody’s cameraphone. And it’s rarely sent as a JPG file less than 500kb (1mb and over please.(Check with your IT guy if you have to.))
Good photography is almost always taken by a professional photographer.
Every time you have a good story that you think needs a picture, so you pull somebody out of their office chair, stand them against a white(ish) wall and point an iPhone at them, the world becomes a slightly worse place. And you’re to blame.
Shame on you if your town recently won an award for being wonderful, but when I asked, you didn’t have any good photos so I can’t do a big splash about it. (That really happened.)
There are few stories that can’t be improved with a high quality photograph. I recently sent my art director a picture of a man at the bottom of an empty reservoir, and it was so striking that we gave it a full page — which is much more than the story by itself would have earned.
Consider that next time you’ve got your cameraphone out because trying to save a bit of money over hiring a pro.