The Message Planner: Planning your Press Release
(Alton Miller's Week 2 Lecture Notes)


Now that you've tried your hand …

the point: it's important to plan your work before you start.

Pre-Writing – Writing - Rewriting


You know yourself,

some stories are more interesting than others.

You glance at the headlines and something catches your eye.

You read the first paragraph and you get the gist of the story.

You make an unconscious decision –

"That's all I need to know about that," or "Hmmm -- tell me more."

And then you settle in to read the story... or you turn the page.


That's what editors do when they receive your release –

a quick glance tells them whether it's worth focusing on.

From just a few seconds of reading, editors expect to find the "5 W's"


"What is this about?"

And is it news?.

That's why we pay so much attention to the lead paragraph.


Planning your Press Release (continued)


The first sentence or two (plus the headline) will make or break your press release.

  1. If you've done your job, it will convey the main points of the story;
  2. it will convince an editor that this is not just a handful of facts – newsworthy
  3. thirdly, it will go beyond journalism, by communicating the message that want to deliver.


These are the three elements of a good press release lead:


·       5 W's (main points of the story, what the reader wants to know)

·       news angle (what the editor needs)

·       message (your client's requirement)


Planning your Press Release (continued)


This is one of the differences between straight journalism and PR writing.

Straight news does not require a "message" –

the main points of the story are the message.

In journalism the reporting is tainted if the reporter is actively trying to send you a "message."

Journalism = the facts speak for themselves. several points of view -- people are quoted

the reporter has no personal opinion, no "message"

And the news angle is contained in the facts

there is no separate news angle -- a story about a tiger in a tree (escaped from the circus) vs.

a pussycat in a tree


Planning your Press Release (continued)


As we get into a discussion of the Message Planner in the next few pages,

I am going to throw a lot of information at you. Take your time…

this is the most intense part of our lessons,

and I don't expect instant results from the actor until the direction is internalized...

that's what all those weeks of rehearsal are for...


Planning your Press Release (continued)

Your press release needs to be planned.

You need to be sure that you've developed your message and delivered it effectively.

To help you do that we have evolved the Message Planner.


Planning your Press Release (continued)


In the message planner you will find separate sections devoted to the principles of pre-writing. It is important that you include all these steps for every assignment you write in this class from this point forward. Here are what you need to include, in the order that they appear on the Message Planner.


Items to include


Client, project, date -- this will be useful information when you have a number of planners to sort through.


Objective -- this is where you tie the press release to the overall objectives of your PR campaign. We'll cover this in more detail later. For now, just use common sense to answer the question, "What do you want people to do?" as a result of reading your story in the newspaper. For example, you want people who read the "From the Heart" story to respond favorably -- with food contributions, money donations, and kind feelings toward the civic spirit of the Westland College students.


5 W's -- decide who is to be the focus of your press release. Close your eyes for a minute and watch the movie in your head: who is the featured player? what's happening to your "star"? where is this going on? when will it or did it happen? why is it remarkable, or how is it worthy of note? These are the basic elements of the story and they're what an editor is going to want to know.


We'll cover the 5 W's in more detail later. For now, just a hint: editors want the "where" to be here, locally, in this town... and editors want the "when" to be now, today or recently or this week or soon.


Key Ideas -- often you will have more than one answer to "why" or "how"... in fact, you will have plenty of ideas and partial thoughts that combine to make this story interesting. List them all here. Actually, your key ideas will usually require a full page to list and organize. Put down every idea that occurs to you. If you're using the Message Planner sheet to "fill in the blanks," use the back of the sheet to continue listing all the ideas you come up with.


Angle -- you have investigated the details of the story, but it's "not yet news" -- not until you've satisfied the needs of an editor. I call this the "Sixth W" -- "So what?"


Close your eyes and use your imagination again: imagine a crusty old editor with his cigar hanging out of his mouth... you have rushed up, breathlessly, to give him your story -- Who, What, Where, When and Why... he doesn't even bother to pull the soggy old stogie out of his mouth: he just growls at you, "So what?"


You need to have an answer ready


Outline of paragraphs -- your first paragraph, of course, is going to be your lead. We'll talk more about that later, but for now you should understand that your lead is going to be your entire story in miniature. It will convey the 5 W's, along with your message, all infused with your news angle -- to satisfy your readers, your client, and above all your editor.


The rest of the paragraphs in your release will make the points, one by one, to support your lead paragraph. What are those points? What do you need to include to tell the full story of "From the Heart"? Each paragraph should make one and only one point, along with whatever information needed to clarify or emphasize that point. When you have made all the points you need to make to deliver your message, you're done. So at this point on your direction sheet you should simply list (in abbreviated form) the points you're going to make.


Planning your Press Release (continued)


Message -- this is the most important element of the Message Planner, and it is the culmination of your entire pre-writing process. Look back at your original objective (at the top of the planner), and think about the 5 W's and the news angle ...


Now put your entire story into a sentence or two -- the main points of the story, what makes it newsworthy, and anything else that you want to communicate for your client, all phrased compactly in a paragraph of one or two sentences.


One way to think of it: as a short news item. Imagine you're driving home after the press conference, which was a big success. A radio station who received your press release has boiled it down to a short broadcast news story -- 30 seconds or less. What is it that you're hearing on the radio? That's your message.


Or you can think of it as a sound bite. Imagine your client is the mayor of Turtle Bay, Jimmy Cline. He wants your professional advice: when a reporter asks about this project, what is the 20- or 30-second sound bite -- a couple of sentences -- that he should be prepared to say, that will communicate everything essential about this story.


Another way to approach it: ask yourself "what's the headline?" That's a common phrase among PR people. It's a good shortcut to the central point. Sometimes a well-crafted headline can help you frame the rest of your message.


Visual -- I skipped this element of the Message Planner , but you should not. Take a moment to picture your story on TV. What do you want to see on the screen. Hint: You don't want simply a talking hairdo giving your news story. You want the TV crews to have something interesting to film and you want the newspapers to run not just a story but a photo as well. So think creatively, now, at the beginning of the pre-writing process: What kind of visuals will help put your message across?


After you've completed the Message Planner, you're ready to write your press release. You'll start with a lead paragraph.


How do a message and a lead paragraph differ? In the same way that your rough draft differs from the final copy of a love letter. Since you're doing your pre-writing for yourself -- no one else (but me) is going to see your Message Planner -- you can feel free to use whatever hype or exaggeration you please. When you turn from pre-writing to writing, you'll "clean up your act," and make your lead more journalistic -- keeping the hype toned down. But your message should be unabashedly enthusiastic -- it should be the theme of your press release, the "take-home" point that you want people to be talking about when your successful PR campaign has done its job.


Your second assignment is to write a new draft of your announcement release on "From the Heart" at Westland College.. Your release date for this assignment should be Jan. 10. Click on the "Westland College" link for full information. And pay careful attention to the release date -- it will help shape your 5 W's.


As always, I want a message planner with your press release -- The message planner is your pre-writing that gives shape to everything else you write. Be sure to look at the example of a message planner which you can reach from the page about Evaluating Press Releases.


Put all the elements into one Microsoft Word file (not separate files): Start with the Message Planner, then on a new page – but in the same Microsoft Word document – begin the press release.


name the file PRW-yourlastname-Westland

In the "Subject:" field put PRW-yourlastname-Westland

Email to me at: