How to… write a press release

UNISON head of media Liz Chinchen explains the nuts and bolts of the press release that really hits the mark

It’s more than a century since the first press release – issued by the Pennsylvania Railroad after a fatal train crash. And while the world and the media that reports on it may have changed a little since 1906, a release remains the best way for organisations to attract the attention of journalists and producers.

Before you get started, think about who might need to know what you’re up to before any release is issued. Alerting the regional organiser who looks after your branch, so they can keep national media colleagues in the loop, could help avoid any nasty surprises in future – and keep everyone happy.

Writing a release isn’t rocket science, but if you want to be noticed and covered for all the right reasons, then there are a few simple guidelines.

Keeping it short and snappy is a given – both for sentence length and the overall release. Go for simple rather than complicated language, save any opinion for the quote, and make sure there’s someone around to check your prose for grammatical mistakes or typos.

As a general rule, watch your language. Union jargon has no place in a press release, so talk about people, employees and staff – or social workers, nurses, teaching assistants, police and community service officers or public servants – rather than ‘members’.

While unions would be nowhere without their members, if you’re trying to influence the wider world, using the ‘m’ word won’t help. Journalists – and their readers and viewers – will assume we’re just talking to ourselves and ignore, or even worse, hit delete on your release.

There are several things to think about and get right if you want to write a press release that hits the mark. There’s the embargo. Then there’s the attention-grabbing headline, the all-important first paragraph and the subsequent ones that explain what it’s all about. Closely followed by the quote – the part of the release most likely to be used – and finally details of how the media can get in touch with you if they want to follow up on your release.

The embargo

The embargo is the date you’d like the story to appear. Of course, journalists can write their story before then – it just means their copy can’t go live or appear in print before that point.

Embargos encourage media types to write about your initiative, safe in the knowledge that none of their rivals will be ahead of them. If your story has a lot of detail, an embargo is a useful way of giving all the media enough time to prepare content and interviews.

An embargo can be for any time of the day – or night. Perhaps the most often used is 00:01hrs, which means media can cover the story at any point from one minute past midnight. If you don’t want an embargo, just write ‘for immediate release’.

The attention-grabbing headline

The job of a headline is to grab the interest of the journalist and get them to read on. A strong one explains the story in a clear and interesting way. If it’s a local story, and relates to a specific town or area, then say this in the headline.

Just remember to keep your headline short and simple. Don’t assume knowledge, try to be too clever or write one that’s much more than a single line long.

Once the headline has grabbed the interest of the journalist, producer or planner, you’ve got to keep their attention and give them the information they need to decide whether to cover your story, add your quote to a story they’re already writing, or simply ignore it.

The difference between success and failure at this point can be a winning first paragraph. This needs to set out the story’s core elements and make the media feel it’s something they should care about.

The five Ws – who, what, where, when and why – are what you should be focusing on here. Don’t think you have to squeeze them all in, you can touch on those you don’t use elsewhere in the release. Focus on short sentences that are to the point and sum up what your release is all about.

With the headline and first par under your belt, now you’re on a roll. Continue with one, two or three paragraphs that give further information that enables the media to cover the story.

It’s important not to assume knowledge at any point in your press release. If you do, and they need to call for clarification, you might lose a busy journalist – and you don’t want to do that.

Keep paragraphs short, sharp and direct, making sure they are factual and offer no opinion – save that for the quote.

The quote

So far you’ve been focused on getting across facts. Now is the time for some opinion, with the quote using powerful language to help lift the release.

And if you’re reacting to a story that you know lots of other organisations are likely to be commenting on, this could be the part that tips the balance in your favour.

Quotes should be attributed to a named individual rather than a spokesperson, and should include their job title.

In press releases, the media is looking for quotes from senior, expert or well-known people. Regularly using your most senior figure in releases helps to build this recognition, and gives the media the feeling that what this person says is important and should therefore be reported.

Avoid repeating what you’ve said elsewhere in the release. Don’t talk about ‘we’ or ‘UNISON’ and concentrate on succinct sentences that express your point of view.

In the loop

In the notes to editors section at the end of the release, make sure you give the media all the additional information they need – along with the details of any sources. The easier you make their job, the more likely they are to cover your story, cover it well and come back for more.

So that means a line or two explaining when a strike ballot is live, when a survey was carried out, or whether there are case studies to give the story legs and colour.

Never ever issue a release without a phone number and email address. And make sure the person listed is going to pick up their phone out of hours. If no one is available locally, add the contact details for the regional or national media office, checking with them first of course.

And before you send a release out, send a copy to the national or your regional media colleagues. This is so they can advise on style and content, and proof it for you too. Keeping them in the loop is also important, as they may well get calls about your release.

Always get someone else to read through what you’ve written. It’s easy to make mistakes. We all do.

Now you’ve got to send the release out. If you forward it to one of the union’s 13 regional media teams, they can send it out for you on Gorkana. This is a media database that all the press officers and journalists subscribe to. It’s a fast, easy and fail-safe way to make sure your releases are hitting the mark.

Never send your release as an attachment. It won’t get opened. Similarly, don’t add big attachments – reports, for example – that will clog up already-full inboxes. The media won’t thank you. Include survey data, pictures or reports as hyperlinks in the notes section of the release.

If you’re going to send it in a group email, put the names in a BCC so the journalists can’t all see who else has received your masterpiece.

Timing is all

And finally – timing. Press releases are meant to be news, so don’t issue releases about things that have already happened.Two days in advance is generally a good guide – so issue on a Tuesday, embargoed for Thursday.

Make sure you start work on them in good time, especially if it’s a release that involves more than one organisation. Releases written by committee can take an age to get signed off.

If you think there’s a real story in your release, ring the journalist and push it to them. ‘Selling it in’ essentially means calling journalists and convincing them to cover your release. The media are usually so busy that they may not even have noticed your email. So your call could make all the difference. But pick your stories – don’t call them for everything.

To make your pitch short and effective, have one or two sentences summarising your story clearly in your mind, or even written down in front of you. Most importantly, don’t forget to introduce yourself and say where you’re calling from.

If done well, press releases are useful tools to gain great media coverage for UNISON, on behalf of all the members the union represents. That coverage can also help influence the thinking of politicians and other key opinion formers, and encourage public service workers who are not yet in UNISON that ours is the union to join.

Visit the UNISON media centre