Bill Stoller, Publisher
baseball, it's said that you know an umpire is top-notch when you never
notice his presence. If he's doing his job, he won't call attention
to himself in any way.
It's much the same for the
writer of a press release. When the recipient of a release focuses only on
its content -- and not on its creation -- the writer has succeeded.
With that in mind, here's The 10
Commandments of Press Releases:
1. Thou Shalt Be Professional. No goofy fonts, rainbow paper or
silly gimmicks. Even lighthearted press releases represent a communication
between one professional and another.
2. Thou Shalt Not Be Promotional. If you can't get enough objective
distance from your company to write a press release that's not filled with
hype and puffery, hire someone to write it for you.
3. Thou Shalt Not Be Boring. Even the driest subject matter allows
for some sparks of creativity. Journalists like knowing that there's a
human being communicating with them, not some corporate robot.
4. Thou Shalt Be Brief. Learn to cut out extraneous words. Keep
your sentences short. Include only the points necessary to sell the story.
The well-crafted one page press release is a thing of beauty.
5. Thou Shalt Know Thy Recipient. A features or lifestyle editor is
a very different creature from a city desk editor. If you're promoting the
opening of a new winery, the food and wine editor may be interested in all
the details about what kind of aging process and wine press you're using.
The city desk editor just wants to know when the grand opening is and
what's going to happen there.
6. Thou Shalt Use The Proper Tense. When writing a hard news
release -- a contract signing, a stock split, a major announcement, etc.)
use the past tense (Acme Industries has changed its name to AcmeCo, the
company announced today...) When writing a soft news release -- a trend
story, a personal profile,
etc. -- use the present tense (Jane Smith is one of the best marathon
runners over 40. She's also blind. Thanks to new technology from AcmeCo,
Jane is able to...).
7. Thou Shalt Think Visually. A press release is more than words --
it's a visual document that will first be assessed by how it looks.
I'm referring to more than font size or letterhead. I'm talking about the
actual layout of the words. Whether received by mail, fax or e-mail, a
journalist -- often unconsciously -- will make decisions about whether to
read the release based on how the release is laid out. Big blocks of text
and long paragraphs are daunting and uninviting. Short paragraphs and
sentences make for a much more visually inviting look.
When writing a non-hard news release, I often use a simple formula -- the
lead paragraph should be one or two sentences at most. The next paragraph
should be very, very short.
8. Thou Shalt Tell A Story. How to arrange the facts of a hard news
release is pretty much cut and dried. The old "who, what, when,
where and how" lead and "inverted pyramid" concepts still
hold. (Rather than engage you in a course in basic newswriting, I'll
direct you to a really good discussion of what the inverted
So let's focus on a soft news release. The trend story, the feel-good
company story, the "gee-whiz, I didn't know anyone was doing
that!" release. The difference between these releases and the hard
news release is simply a mirror of the difference between a feature story
in, say, the entertainment section of your newspaper and the breaking news
report on page one. The hard news
story is about cold, hard facts (A mudslide closed portions of Interstate
70 last night, causing massive delays). A feature article about the guy
who spends all day looking at seismograph readouts trying to predict where
the next mudslide will occur will be very different. It's likely to be in
present tense, it won't load all the facts upfront and it will be designed
to draw the reader deep into the text. It is, in short, all about
Here's the formula I use for these kinds of releases. I call it the 3S
approach -- Situation/Surprise/Support.
The first paragraph sets up the situation. The second paragraph reveals
the surprise. The third paragraph supports the claim made in the second
One very typical 3S is discussing a common problem in the first paragraph
(For centuries, people have accepted memory loss as an inevitable result
of aging.) The "surprise" paragraph announces the solution
to the problem (But one local man says he's ready to prove the medical
establishment wrong.) The "support" paragraph then tells
the story. (John Smith, an Anytown entrepreneur, says
he's found the key to retaining a strong memory function far into old age.
His "Memory Maker" software is based on ancient Chinese texts
that were used more than 2000 years ago to...)
Another 3S -- let's revisit our mudslide watching friend. How would you
start his story using this method?
While John Smith's colleagues at the National Atmospheric Center are
watching the skies for signs of lightning and tornadoes, his attention is
John Smith is listening to the mud.
As the Chief Mudslide Analyst at the NAC, Smith spends his days glued to a
seismograph, eyes and ears peeled for the telltale signs on an impending
Along with the 3S in action, I also followed the 7th Commandment. That
really short second paragraph is a visual grabber, and will keep the
journalist reading right into the meat of the release.
9. Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness. This may seem an obvious
point, but it always bears repeating.
Tell the truth.
Don't inflate, don't confabulate, don't exaggerate. Don't twist facts,
don't make up numbers, don't make unsubstantiated claims. Any decent
journalist will be able to see right through this. If you're lucky, you're
release will just get tossed out. If you're unlucky, you'll be exposed.
It's a chance not at all worth taking. Make sure every release you write
is honest and on the level.
10. Thou Shalt Know Thy Limitations. Not everyone can write a press
release. A good feature release, in particular, isn't an easy thing to
craft. If you just don't feel like you have the chops to get the job done,
hire a professional.
One last tip: right before you start writing your release, spend an
hour or two reading your daily paper, paying special attention to stories
similar in feel to yours. Immerse yourself in how the pros do it and
you'll be in the right frame of mind to tackle the job! To view
professional press releases updated daily, go to:
and click on the "Press Release Gallery"
Stoller, the "Publicity Insider," has spent two decades as one
of America's top publicists. For free articles,
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visit Bill's exclusive new site:
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