Editing your Press Release
(Alton Miller's Week 3 Lecture Notes)


“Collective Feedback” – comments on your Westland assignment for Lesson 2

Link here to "Collective Feedback"

… your first "real" press release … and your first message planner.... "collective feedback" makes sense because so many students make the same types of mistakes on their early assignments. Soon you’ll be ready for more detained individual comments on your work. Beginning in Lesson Three, you should use the Press Release Checklist, (see below) so you can take responsibility for self-editing.


These were the main problem areas with the Message Planner, which represents the pre-writing, the planning, that you do for all your PR writing. Most students did not do a good job on this. The biggest problems were::

  1. 5W's not clear. Remember, this is where you do the "casting" for your story. Who is the "star?" What is he or she or they doing that is worth writing about?

  2. Angle not sharp. This is what editors care about. Your mother might like the story, but if an editor doesn't think it's news it won't see the light of day.

  3. Message not compelling. If your message was not, essentially, the 20-second sound bite that "says it all," then it wasn't a good message.

  4. Key Ideas skimpy. Look at my example -- I fill a separate page with Key Ideas.

  5. Generally lame. That is, the rest of the Message Planner was just not complete because the student didn't spend enough time thinking through the release.

  6. The Media Alert

    New PR students often make the mistake of writing a press release that announces an upcoming press conference, instead of "reporting" on the press conference. Keep these distinctions in mind:

    ·       A media alert – the difference between a Media Alert and a Press Release is more than a question of format. The basic principle is this: a Media Alert is mailed out in advance of a press conference. It gives just enough information in one page (not more – don’t confuse reporters with a second page that can get detached)… to convince a news director to send a reporter and camera crew (or a newspaper reporter and photographer).It will trumpet an upcoming event (press conference, grand opening, groundbreaking, significant speech, photo op, etc.). Naturally, you would never distribute a media alert at a press conference -- the media is already there with you!

    ·        A press release is is not a news alert. It does not say "there will be" a press conference. The press release is, essentially, the story that you want to open the paper tomorrow (the day after the press conference) and read, as a result of your successful press conference. It is not about the story, it is the story.written in the style of news coverage, as the story you would like to see written after your media event has taken place. Its lead is, essentially, the sound bite you'd like to hear on the afternoon drive-time radio... and on the TV news tonight. If you could have your wish, the press release is the story that would be featured on the front page of tomorrow's newspaper, with a big fat photo. It is always written from the point of view that the announcement has already taken place, or that the news event is now ongoing. Thus --

    §        Mayor Cline today announced a new initiative ... or

    §        The Cline administration is taking legal action to ... etc.

    ·        A press release is always wrong if it says something like, "Mayor Jimmy Cline will appear at a press conference today where he will announce..." Remember, the press release is what you distribute at the press conference -- the reporters are already there in the room with you. 

    There are several examples for you to look at in Lesson Three. Study them carefully and take them to heart. They are your models for the kind of work I expect as we move forward. They set the standard, and provide the answer to that urgent question, "What does he want from me?"

    The Press Release Checklist

    Link here to the "Press Release Checklist"

    There are twelve problem areas for press releases, … take your time and read these pages carefully, because they'll save you a lot of time later.

    There are other pages that will be a big help. Like the online chart on Evaluating Press ReleaseS. Notice that there are samples of "A," "C," and "F" papers. There is also a sample of an "A" quality Message Planner.

    I expect you -- and your client or boss will expect you -- to take the initiative in perfecting your work. Your client, or boss, will often suggest changes in how you approach your assignment. But they will expect that all the basic problems will be solved before you present your draft.

    I've already mentioned that editors are looking for Timeliness and Proximity ... but when you're trying to come up with a good, sharp angle , that's not enough. You're competing for the editor's attention with hundreds of other stories -- you need to be more than timely and local.


    The next few pages (text in blue) contain information that we did not have time to discuss, as we substituted a group-writing exercise
    What are Editors Looking For?
    Editors were polled to learn what they look for in a press release. Here is a tally of their responses.

    Timeliness... Thirty men, women and children were killed in cold blood on the lakefront, near the site of McCormick Place. This fact is not news, since it happened in 1832 -- Chicago's "Dearborn Massacre." Editors want to know that your story is news -- that it's all about what's happening now.

    Proximity... That flash flood that killed five people -- if it happened in Schaumburg, it's news. If it happened in Sri Lanka, you probably won't read about it in the Chicago Sun-Times. Editors want to know that your story is local -- that it's all about what's happening here. (How can you make a national story local?)


    ·       Eminence or prominence ... If you get stopped for driving while intoxicated, it probably won't make the news. If the governor gets stopped, you can look for it on the TV news tonight, and the front page of tomorrow's papers.


    ·       Impact... If your story affects 1,000 people, an editor will find it more interesting than one affecting only ten people -- but it's likely to be bumped by a timely local story that affects a million people. Big money talks, too -- not to sound too much like Dr. Evil in "Austen Powers," but "$1 million" will catch an editor's attention.


    ·       Unusualness ... Editors are always willing to pay attention to the unusual -- because they know readers want to read about the unusual. Sometimes you can frame a story in the context that it's a departure from common assumptions, or business as usual.


    ·       Conflict ... News reporting thrives on conflict. Often this hook will seem counterproductive -- why would you want to emphasize conflict in a positive piece about your client? -- but there may be ways to use conflict, especially if your release is about a service or product or event that will appeal to the majority while protecting them against adverse interests.


    ·       Human Interest... This is a catch-all that covers a multitude of attractions -- children, kittens and puppies, love relationships, humorous or ironic complications. Hard to describe, but you know them when you see them because they're so much a part of our human nature. Different editors will have different definitions, of course.


    Other things editors look for include such things as stories that reflect the interests of their publisher or owner... stories that flatter major advertisers... stories that adhere to a political or ideological point of view... etc. These are specific to certain editors more than others, but should not be overlooked.


    You also need to know about
    different types of press releases.

    The Announcement Release

    The most common type of press release is the announcement release -- used for just about every purpose -- the opening of a new facility, the launching of a food drive, the beginning of rehearsals for a new play in production, new company policies, personnel appointments, hirings, layoffs, promotions, mergers, awards, honors, price changes, introducing a new product, announcing financial results, etc.

    The key criteria for an announcement release: you control the timing. Generally speaking, that's the hallmark of an announcement release. A key executive can't fly in for the press conference until next week? No big problem – you'll do the press conference next Tuesday instead of this Thursday. Final product photos won't be ready till Wednesday morning? You control the timing of the announcement, and you can plan your product release for the next day.

    A product release is a special kind of announcement release. It requires careful crafting to prevent an editor from rejecting it out of hand, so it has some special characteristics -- but it is still an announcement release. We'll talk more about product releases in the next lesson.

    There are also legally required financial releases, written by lawyers, to comply with SEC and other regulations. They are different from announcement releases to publicize financial results, mentioned in the first paragraph above. You may be called upon to improve the lawyers' efforts, but the final draft will probably go back to the lawyers before being distributed, since these financial releases are really management instruments, not pure publicity tools.

    But not every release is an announcement release -- timed to suit your schedule, according to a planned PR campaign.

    Sometimes events will not be under your control. You may be called upon to write a release so that you and your client can help influence the spin on a breaking story, or a story that you know will soon break. In these situations you are not simply creating news, you are anticipating news and trying to be the first to frame the news in terms favorable to you and your client.

    Here are some of the different types of press releases for situations that might arise:

    Spot News release Your company has won a national award for its environmental efforts. The award will be announced in Washington on Thursday. You must respect the award committee's wishes to hold the news till Thursday, but you should write your own press release right now, ready for release on Thursday. You know reporters will be covering this story, but your release can help shape those stories so that they emphasize your key points, and perhaps add other stuff you've been trying to publicize along these same lines.


    Response (or Reaction) release A competitor (or, for lawyers and politicians and government officials, an adversary) has leveled an attack on you... or a critic has blasted you. Your response should be made in the same news cycle -- as soon as you know about the problem, and as soon as you can mobilize your executives to decide on the desired response. In this way, your attacker will not get a "clean shot" at you -- when the story is reported, it will include not only the attack but also your mitigating response.


    Bad-News release Sometimes bad things happen. For example, the south wing of your chemical plant blew up earlier this morning. Or maybe it's a company executive who embezzled last year's profits and is merrily on his way to Brazil. Before long, reporters will be on the story. A bad news release is always forthcoming and truthful -- stonewalling can be disastrous and lying is worse -- and don't bury the news: put it in the lead. But still, you can couch even bad news in a positive context -- for example, making clear that you had disaster procedures in place and the damage was contained to only the south wing, and contamination of the groundwater was limited to only two acres.


    Feature release Sometimes news is news but not "NOW!" news... once you've done the release announcing the casting for "Evita" and the fact that tickets are now on sale... and before you write the next announcment release just before the play opens in April (you'll think of something to announce)... you may want to write a feature release on the co-stars, Laura Jennsen and Harold Stein... it's quite a story, after all -- a classically-trained singer and a heavy metal rocker, paired in a "rock opera"... each of them brings something different and yet, like fire and ice, they have to work as a pair... feature releases are fun to write.


    Column notes, letters, guest columns Some news not suitable for a release; but still usable. Consider special columns or sections for unusual items: Letter to the editor... guest column... notes to columnists... reader exchanges... recipes... sports sections, etc.


    Fact sheet Free form, but provides essentials -- 5 W's, plus key ideas, arranged in creative ways. Angle and message can be featured just as in a press release. Can be used instead of a press release. Preferred by some reporters/editors.

    So, let's move on to the Lesson Three assignment,

    Which is to write an announcement release on "Evita" . Your release date for this assignment should be March 6. Click on the "Evita" 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 streamlined 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-Evita

    In the "Subject:" field of your email put PRW-yourlastname-Evita

    Email to me at: altonmiller@mail.com