The Secret of the Briefs Bin (or how to write press releases that actually see the light of day)

I got a request for a post over the Thanksgiving break: “Can you talk about press releases? You cover this in the book, but what should we REALLY do to make sure our press releases (get published in news outlets)?”

Here’s a quick look at my actual experience writing news pieces from press releases. Hope it helps.

Of all the jobs I had working on the night desk of a professional newspaper, the one really annoying task was to tackle the briefs bin. The wire basket sat on my editor’s desk and was filled with press releases that various groups, clubs and businesses sent to us, hoping we would be enthralled enough with their prose to provide them with free coverage. Once every couple days, my editor would sort through a giant stack of releases and make some quick-glance decisions on their value.

I’d guess that at least one-third of them ended up in the garbage immediately. Those tended to come from out-of-state organizations or contained irrational screeds. A small number of the releases (maybe 5 or 10 percent) became actual stories: The editor would see a lot of value in these and hand them off to reporters who could pour some time and energy into them. Sources were called, people were quoted and stories were born.

The rest, however, had “BRF” scrawled across the top of them and were dumped into the briefs bin. These press releases would, at best, get a four-paragraph brief in the local section. Still, it would be something, so getting that far mattered.

The briefs bin was essentially a “do this when you have time” job for those of us who worked nights or general assignment shifts. When the editor asked, “Are you doing anything?” if you couldn’t plausibly come up with a job that you needed to do RIGHT NOW, she would say, “Well, why don’t you work through the briefs bin instead?”

So, what made for a “good” release, or at least good enough to get some level of coverage from a news publication? Consider the following thoughts:

  • A clear focus:  In a lot of cases, the most important stories were already gone, as my editor had pulled them out and given them to reporters. It was like someone had opened up a bunch of packs of baseball cards and pulled out all the major stars. I needed to find value in the semi-stars and commons that remained. When a press release hit the briefs bin, I knew it wasn’t something that was going to cure cancer, but I needed to find something that would matter to my readers. A strong focus in the headline and the lead sentence would help me figure this out. If the headline was something like, “City wins ‘Arborfest’ award for record-setting 23rd year in a row,” at least I had something to hang my hat on. If I’m reading six paragraphs into this and I’m hearing about “Ever since the dawn of time, trees have been an essential component of human existence on Earth…”, well, I’m probably skipping that one. If the release could be easily converted into a tight, clear brief, I wrote it up and pushed it over to my editor. If it couldn’t, I would usually slip the news release to the bottom of the briefs bin and pick another one. Eventually, if enough of us pushed a release to the bottom of the bin, it became “old news” and my editor would throw it out when she did a “cull” on the bin at the end of the month.
  • Write like I write: I once asked a friend who did press releases as a major component of his job what a “win” would be for him when he sends these things out to news outlets. His answer was, “I’d love it if you would just print the whole thing exactly the way I wrote it.” If that’s the goal, use the inverted pyramid, write in single-sentence paragraphs and follow AP style. Essentially, you want to write like I write for my publication. The less work you make me do, the more likely it is you will see your content published almost verbatim.
  • Appearances count: I say this as a chronically messy individual who will only “dress up” for weddings, funerals and court appearances. I also say this as someone who once tried to turn in a report that had tartar sauce on it. That said, as a professional, your job is to present information to me in a professional fashion. Yes, letterhead looks nice, but I’m talking about appearances in terms of things that make your release easy to read. Contact info should be easy to find and give me a named individual I can reach if I have a question. The font should not look like it was chosen by a toddler, a kidnapper or the Son of Sam. The paragraphs should be double spaced, so I can read them without getting a headache. At 1 a.m. when I was writing these things, ease of use made my day. If I felt like I was playing a game of “Where’s Waldo?” I would usually give up.
  • It’s not about you: The goal of any form of media writing is to reach your audience members in a way that has them see why they should care about the story you are telling. The key way to do this is to tell the readers why THEY should care about something, not why YOU want to tell them something. In short, it’s not about you. The promotional aspect of press release writing allows you some leeway in how you tell them this information, but you want to keep in mind this press release isn’t about you or how cool your group is. If every release you write starts off with “The Smithton Company announced Wednesday an important (NEW PIECE OF INFORMATION)…” you are essentially writing the PR version of a “held a meeting lead.” You get to “play” in the release, but it shouldn’t be all about you.

Thanks for asking for this post! Hope it helped! By the way, I do take requests, so if you want me to cover a topic, pick at a story or generally deal with something on the blog, contact me and I’ll be happy to give it a go.

 

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