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by Judith Prebyl

For any organization that has a message or a mission, a press release is one of its most effective and vital means of communication. A nonprofit organization cannot afford to operate without good publicity. No matter how great your cause or worthy your need, if you don't have someone good writing your press releases, you will only achieve nominal success.

In our modern world of multimedia, a newspaper still provides one of the best ways of sending a message out to the general public. You can get your communications published regularly if you write interesting, newsworthy press releases.

Where To Start

If you are simply starting or maintaining a relationship with a newspaper, all you really need to do is call the newspaper to find out who to send a press release to, and what their deadlines are. You can send the release to a particular person, or you can simply send it to the Managing Editor.

Newspapers receive massive amounts of print material daily, and editors have to pick and choose what information, out of the many news wires and press releases they get, is really of interest to their readers. An editor would much rather read a good press release from a nonprofit publicity chairman than get a call and a request for a time-consuming meeting. Although it is always good to develop a rapport with your local press, you need to walk a fine line between making and maintaining a relationship with an editor, and making a pest of yourself. If you send press releases to different types of media, such as radio, you will definitely need to work closely with them and follow-up everything.

Since newspapers work around tight deadlines, you really don't want to abuse a telephone relationship with an editor. Don't call an editor just to find out if your press release arrived; assume it did. If you aren't getting enough press coverage, it probably means your press releases are weak, and you need to work on your writing skills. If you have a last-minute correction, it is certainly appropriate to call the editor or send the changes through FAX.

Newsworthy News

What do you want to publicize? Anything of import to your organization, its members, supporters, beneficiaries, and the general public. Send a press release out when you elect officers, have a fund raiser, or put on a major social gathering or community function. Send out a press release when you know the results of your fund raiser, have a special speaker at a meeting, or decide to begin an exciting new annual event. Be sensitive as to what should or shouldn't be publicized; make sure it is pertinent and timely.

The Style and Presentation

A press release should be typed or word processed on an 8 1/2": x 11 ": paper. Provide wide margins and double-space the copy. White paper is most frequently used, but some publicity people use colored paper or typeface that reflect the colors of their organization or the theme of a particular event. If you have a logo, be sure to use it.

Many newspapers accept FAX press releases. If you mail your release, consider folding the letter with the copy side out, so that as soon as the editor opens the letter he sees who it is from and what it is about. Always send the original press release to an editor, and keep a copy for your organization.

Use letterhead stationery or type the name, address, and telephone number of your organization, single-spaced, in the left margin of the page. This is the source of the press release. Also include the publicist's name and telephone number. This is the contact. If you do use a letterhead, but be sure to remember to include the contact's name and phone number.

The date you are sending the press release can be placed at the left or right margin. Next comes the release date, which tells the editor the general time frame you want the information released. It should be typed in capital letters and placed at the left margin. Most press releases simply say, ":RELEASE IMMEDIATELY,": or ":RELEASE AT WILL.": Trust the editor to get the timing right. If you need to promote something that is extremely time-sensitive, write more specific details, such as ":RELEASE JUNE 18, AFTER 10 AM.":

It is a good idea to include a suggested headline. Most editors write their own headlines, which are typically created after the graphic artist lays out the copy on the newspaper page and determines how much space can be used for a headline. Although your headline might not be used, it immediately tells the editor, at a glance, what is the most important element of your press release.

The lead is the crux of your message. It is the first sentence, which pulls the reader in, hook, line, and sinker. The lead must be short and succinct, and get the message across in one fell swoop.

For the most part, the only information your press release requires is the lead sentence and one or two additional sentences which fill in the details. This is the body of the press release. If you need to elaborate on an idea, keep it concise. Stay away from lots of superlatives, but try to give it some ":punch.":

Most of the press releases your organization sends will not require photographs. Photographs are used more often in stories that reporters write. If you do need to include a photograph, find out if the newspaper wants a black and white or color photo. In order to print well, a newspaper needs a high-quality photographs. Be sure that every photo you send has a typed caption with appropriate identification information adhered to its back. Do not use a paper clip or staple to attach the photo to the press release; simply put the photo with the press release in an envelope.

A Journalistic Style

A good press release answers the all-important journalistic questions known as the Five W's — Who, What, Where, When, and Why. The press release should also answer the Five W's tagalong — How.

A journalistic style is quite different from most writing styles. In most writing, you slowly develop and describe something that leads you to a particular point or conclusion. Newswriting gets straight to the point, and develops the story ":backwards.": The main point is stated at the beginning, and the rest of the information reveals itself from the most important to the least important.

Choose your words carefully and keep the style simple and direct. The body of the press release should be double-spaced, so that there is room for the editor to edit. If you write a one page press release, at the bottom of the copy add three pound signs (###), the number thirty (-30-), or the word ":end": in capital letters (END). These are abbreviations which signify the conclusion of the press release. If you need to use more than one page, write ":continued": at the bottom of the first page, and on subsequent pages, until you get to the final page.

Double-Check and Reevaluate

When your press release is ready to go, take an extra moment to double-check all facts, dates, names, spelling, and grammar. Reread your press release. Is it informative? Is the information clearly defined? Does it speak to the general public? Does the headline and lead grab you and make you want to find out more?

If you are successful at getting your press releases published, clip and save them in a file. This will provide your organization with a good record of its press coverage and style. If you aren't successful at getting all of your press releases in print, study and reevaluate those that made the grade and those that didn't.

Fine tune your next press release. Try to determine if you are sending the type of information that is truly of interest to the public. Work on your writing style and physical presentation. Get input from people within your organization.

Check out some public relations and marketing books from your local library. You might even consider getting a copy of the AP Stylebook, which will help you follow newspaper editorial standards for punctuation, use of upper and lower case, sentence structure, paragraph length, abbreviations, and other requisites.

Share Feedback

Every now and then, it is nice to send a thank-you letter to the editor who places your press releases in the paper. Send a brief note of thanks, and relate any positive feedback you've gotten from the exposure, such as increased inquiries, new members, good attendance at certain events, or donations. The size of your organization and its members, supporters, and fund raisers, will grow and progress in proportion to your ability to ":get the word out.":

— Judith Prebyl

Reprinted from The FOLIO, Fall 1995, ISSN 1080-3963, FRIENDS of California Libraries, © Copyright 1995.

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