Press release strategy tips

Wednesday, December 13, 2017
A glimpse of my inbox.
I get this question a lot: What makes a good press release? A friend sought that advice today, and in case you might find my counsel useful, here’s an adaptation:

Should I send it as an attachment? No. Attachments are a problem. Many reporters who get email with an attachment may never take that extra step of clicking to open the attachment, and some may delete it without opening it—especially when their inboxes are flirting with “full.” You don’t want it to wind up labeled as a “BIG File,” which is what happens with attachments. Format your message so it looks great copied and pasted into the body of your email, with links (not attachments) to anything (photos, etc.) that would make the email big.
You don’t want to wind up here.

How should I format it? Your subject line determines whether anyone opens your email. A great, irresistible one will lead with its most interesting words first, because, on tiny smartphone screens, they may be all that shows up. (So, for instance, do not make the words “Press Release” the first words of your subject line. You might just as well write “Dump this in the trash before opening.”) Especially if you hope your email will be opened by people unfamiliar with your organization—people to whom your organization name will therefore not be interesting—your organization name likely isn’t the most interesting word, and may not belong in the subject line at all—or at least not at the beginning. (See “A tough question,” below.)

Should I include a short or long note about the very subject the release discusses? The whole thing should read like a note. Formatting it like a news release can be counterproductive. Depending on your audience, formatting it more like a personal note may yield higher engagement—especially if you actually personalize it to indicate you’re familiar with the work of the reporter you’re courting. Further, if it looks like a news release, reporters may rightfully conclude, “This is a mass-mailed news release. Lots of reporters are getting it, so why should I spend time on it? I’ll be just one of many reporters with the same story.” For the same reason—and counterintuitively—you might not want to include all the details in your news release, because a reporter who has no questions has no reason to contact you and no reason to assume he or she will be able to write a story unlike any other. Irony: Avoid the phrase “news release.” It’s an oxymoron for reporters who think real news isn’t released.

Is there a best time to send? Depends on your audience. If you’re going after doughnut makers, early morning might be better. If you’re targeting night security workers, evenings could be best. As MailChimp explains, “There’s no one answer. Ideal sending times vary by industry, day of the week, and your specific subscriber list.” If you’re really conscientious, you’ll learn the deadlines of every news organization you hope to reach and then send at a time that (a) gives a reporter time to craft a story and (b) won’t make your story seem old by publication or broadcast time. All that said, my general advice for reaching an audience of white-collar workers in an office or newsroom environment (based on more than a decade of sending email to a general news audience) is that you could do worse than send midday weekdays. (My Chicago Public Square email newsletter goes out at 10 a.m. and gets a 40+% open rate.)

Where should I send my releases? Where—in which publications or media—would you most like or expect to see your story? Where have you seen similar stories? (And if you haven’t seen similar stories, is there a reason?)

A tough question to ask before you work up a news release. Who cares? What’s in this for a reporter—or, more important, a reporter’s readers, viewers or listeners? Do you offer a payoff for the audience? A call to action? What will someone who learns your story gain—or be able to contribute? The answers to that will shape your subject line, and your subject line will shape the body of your communication.

Don’t be fake.
Bonus tips:
From 2016: A podcast in which Chicago reporters affiliated with national news organizations explain what not to do when pitching them.
Avoid “press release.” Say news release.” Broadcast and digital reporters bristle at the print-centric word “press.” (And, yes, I did it in the headline here; but that was just to get the attention of people who, unlike you now, don’t know better.)

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