Public Relations Writing: The Basics



The Basics of Planning your Press Release

Get off to a good start -- be clear about your overall objectives, and also about the 5W's -- the "bones" of your story.

1. Spend some time thinking about objectives. Too often, students tend to skimp on this. Think about the things you want to accomplish with your story, including

  • Getting people to bring food
  • Getting people to donate money
  • Enlisting volunteers
  • Good publicity for the Student Association
  • Good publicity for Westland College
  • Getting other civic groups to pick up the other nights
  • These were just some of the ideas students had. You may have other ideas... don't be skimpy, be creative!



2. The 5 W's are an important place to start. Remember, this is where you do the "casting" of your story... Who's the hero of your story? Who's at the center of it? Who's doing something that will make NEWS?
... and then What is your hero doing that is newsworthy? Identify the actor and the action -- the more vivid the better. This Who+What is going to be the spine of your entire release.

Here's a very important formula:

W+W=Sentence.

That means that your Who joined together with your What should always become a sentence.

Something like this is always wrong:

    Who: Westland College Student Association

    What: Food drive to feed the homeless

Why is it wrong? Because put together, W+W, it comes out

Westland College Student Association food drive to feed the homeless

and that is not the simple, straightforward declarative sentence that creates a spine for your story..

The Who/What combination forms the most important sentence of your pre-writing because it's what orients everything else.

    For example, if your Who is the Westland College Student Association, your Who+What is going to be something like, The Westland College Student Association is sponsoring a food drive..."

    But if your Who is Mayor Cline then it will be something like, "Mayor Cline is pledging city support to a food drive at Westland College..." -- a different spin.



3. Your "Where" and "When" should always somehow be translated to "Here" and "Now" When editors are polled to learn what they look for in news -- that is, what makes a story newsworthy -- they have a lot of answers but they all agree that the top two factors are Proximity (is it a local story?) and Timeliness (did it just happen, or is it just about to happen, or is it happening as we speak?)

Make sure your lead doesn't mislead the editor about timing. If you are writing a press release announcing the beginning of rehearsals (March 8) don't flash the date of opening night (April 15) in your lead. The overworked editor will quickly discern (incorrectly) that you're sending am April story, and that's as far as it will get before being tossed in the "circular file."



4. Your "Why/How" -- the 5th "W" -- is where your story gets interesting. This is where your reader will get some of the details to explain why the "hero" is doing whatever it is that's going to make news. You will have more than one "Why/How" as you get warmed up. For example, why are the students launching "From the Heart"?

    ...in order to feed the hungry families of Persimmon County.
    ...in response to the hardships of Marshmallow layoffs.
    ...in order to begin a program of free meals every week at the Anodyne Center.
    ...to show you can't stereotype students as apathetic, or wacked out party animals
    ...to show they're caring citizens who want to make a difference
    ...to inspire civic organizations of Turtle Bay to pitch in and help with the other six days of the week.

Again, as you consider "Why/How," let your creativity flourish. You will have so many ideas that they will flow into the Key Ideas and even fill the next page

Be careful here -- "Why" doesn't mean "Why are we writing a press release." (You've already addressed that in your objectives.) It means "Why is ______ (your hero) doing ______ (whatever they're doing) that will make news.



5. Your key ideas will begin as a brainstorm list but soon you're going to prioritize them in order of importance, clustering like with like. This is so you can begin to order them and put the dominant key ideas -- Mayor Cline will be on hand, in chef's cap and apron -- with subordinate key ideas (which are no less important to include), like the address of the Anodyne Center is 450 Eastlake Drive.



6. The Outline of Paragraphs is very important. Remember, PR Writing is all about order of importance, not chronological order. Your most important stuff first -- that's the whole point of the inverted pyramid, a mainstay of journalistic style.



7. The Message itself is the whole point. When you have crafted a good message, you have also identified the theme of your entire PR campaign. You have also spelled out, in two or three sentences max, the essential details of your story. After your message is fully formed, every other PR writing assignment for that campaign will almost write itself. Another way to think of it is -- if a reporter approached you with her microphone and asked you for a sound bite -- a brief summary of your story -- what would you tell her?



8. I skipped two items but you shouldn't. Spend some time coming up with whatever it is you might visualize as the best "visual" for your story. For example, if your story made it to the front page of the newspaper, what would be a good photograph to capture it. Or if you were planning a press conference for TV coverage, what would work best for your setting? The other piece I skipped is the headline. This is a good exercise for every assignment. It'ls like coming up with a slogan, or a logo, or a bumper sticker, or a T-shirt. Ironically, the right phrase can wind up being the most important takeaway for the audience you're trying to reach. When PR strategists begin a working session on a PR issue, very often the opening words of the meeting will be, "Okay, what's the headline?"