Before we go on, we should talk about why a press release is not the same thing as a press report, even though the terms may mistakenly be used interchangeably.
What is a press report, and how does it differ from a press release?
Well, a press report is any report created by journalists, no matter what medium it’s in. A press report may tell the same story as a release, but with very different goals. A press release is a publicity tool. It tries to tell a story from a person or company’s point of view, making it sound as good as possible for them. That doesn’t mean lying: it’s absolutely essential that everything in a press release should be true – if anything is false, the media coverage will be devastatingly negative, and the whole point of a news release will be lost.
But while a press release must always tell the truth, it “spins” the facts in the best possible way. A release may say, “the company believes that this product will be great.” That’s the truth! They do believe this! But obviously, it’s in the company’s interest to let people know that they believe this.
Press reports “spin” the facts too, but they don’t have to spin them in favor of the company. A journalist who creates a press report may make it very positive or very negative or include opinions from both sides, e.g., balancing the company’s favorable opinion with someone else who doesn’t think the product will work at all. When a journalist writes an article based on a press release, they are often seeking to “neutralize” the press release, covering the same facts but taking out anything that might seem to be taking the company’s side too strongly.
“Neutralizing” doesn’t mean that a press report will never say positive things, but the viewpoint is different. The press release, as we’ve said before, is from the company’s point of view. It wants to make things sound as good as possible. The journalist has the opposite motivation: they will be accused of being shills or uncritically regurgitating releases if they seem to be telling the story from the company’s point of view (POV). The journalist is trying to tell the story from their own POV, or a neutral POV – but they must report on the story as an observer, not a publicist for the company.
The person who writes a press release will often keep in mind the fact that journalists don’t want to create uncritical press reports and make sure that they allow for that in the release itself. We’ll talk a little later about how to do that when we get to the rules and regulations of press releases, but first, let’s discuss the four basic types of press releases.
While there are many different reasons why a company might want to issue a press release, many if not most of them fall into 4 types of releases:
General news releases – Something has happened, and the company wants the world to know it. There might be a new hire or a high-level employee leaving the company. When a publicly-owned company has received information, it must disclose to the public; they put it in a press release. If something is considered newsworthy, then there should be a release that explains what happened and how the company sees it. And even if something isn’t all that important, it may still be worth putting it in a press release. By issuing news releases regularly, the company maintains awareness of its brand and keeps communication lines open with journalists. A steady flow of press releases means you’re never out of the news for too long.
Event announcements – Press releases aren’t the only things a company does to promote itself. But when it does something else, it also sends out a release to make sure journalists know about it. When a company creates a new product, for example, it will often hold an event – in-person, virtual, or hybrid – where the product is unveiled, and executives answer questions about it. Before this happens, a press release needs to be issued; it includes the date of the event, the location, how to attend it, and more. These types of media releases don’t give away everything that will happen during the event, of course, otherwise there would be no point in holding the event. But it does offer enough information that a journalist might be able to create a story about the upcoming event, whether or not they choose to cover the event itself.
Issue management – Companies are people for the purposes of the law, and, like people, they have opinions they want to share. Things that happen outside the company can affect the way it operates or the way it is perceived, and a press release can offer the company’s POV on the issue. Suppose there is a new government regulation that the company opposes. In that case, the press release explains – politely, of course – the reasons why this will affect the company adversely and why the regulation is unnecessary. This type of release can influence journalists to take the company’s point of view into account in stories that aren’t specifically about the company.
Crisis management – And sometimes a story does involve the company directly, but in a way that could be interpreted as damaging to the company, whether it’s a scandal or simply a money-losing project. As we’ll see in a minute, the first press release was a way of doing damage-control for a company that had been involved in an accident. If something goes wrong, a press release can’t wish it away, but it can at least present the company’s side of the story to the journalists who will be covering it.
Although press releases are not press reports, release rules are pretty much the same as for the types of journalism they seek to influence. Journalism can’t make knowingly false statements, and neither can a news release. All the facts in a press release must be verifiably true; if something is just an opinion, then the press release should say so or quote the person who is expressing the opinion. A release must also conform to all laws and regulations about disclosure, meaning that they need to be reviewed by someone at the company who is empowered to decide whether it contains anything that shouldn’t be made public.
As for the unwritten rules of press releases – how to structure them and format them – they, too, are similar to journalism. If you read literature on how to write a release, you’ll find that standard press release terms are often similar to the ones reporters use: the text of the piece is called the “body,” while the section that announces the title is the “headline.” Another rule journalists and press release writers live by is the rule that the opening should establish “who, what, when, where, how and why?” – all that basic information should be in the first paragraph, with the rest of the piece elaborating on it and filling in details. Assume that the reader might not even bother to read the second paragraph, and structure the piece to still have enough information in their head to at least consider creating a story.
However, there are other press release terms that are unique to the format. Most obviously, a release has to put the term “news release” or “press release” at the top to make it clear that it’s not intended to be a press report.
After that, the creator of the release has to specify when the reader will be allowed to release the information to the public. If a journalist sees the term “FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE” at the top of a press release, that means they are free to adapt or quote anything mentioned in it right away. Most press releases use that term since time is usually of the essence, and they want the coverage to begin immediately. On the other hand, if the company wants to delay the release of the information – say, if they have a movie coming out, and they only want it to be written about closer to the release date – then the term to use is “UNDER EMBARGO UNTIL” a specified date. Be careful, though: journalists aren’t legally bound to abide by an embargo, so if it’s something the company absolutely cannot afford to let anyone know until a specific date, it should be kept out of any releases until that date.
You might think that press releases wouldn’t matter as much as they used to, given the huge changes that have taken place in media in their more than 100 years of existence. But actually, the importance of the press release has, if anything, increased, especially the importance of news release in public relations.
Press releases are helpful for public relations (PR) people because they offer an easy, affordable way to promote something to as many outlets as possible while always staying within the boundaries of what the company wants. PR people will often tweak press releases to appeal to the outlet they’re sending them to: if there’s a movie about vintage cars, then a movie magazine might want to see a version of the press release that emphasizes filmmaking, while an automobile magazine would want something that emphasizes cars. But in both cases, the PR person is working with information that has been approved by the company. The press release sets boundaries and makes it possible to pitch to many different types of outlets simultaneously.
What has made press releases even more important in the internet age is that every press release is available to read even for people who aren’t members of the press. No one ever saw a press release who wasn’t the creator or recipient in the old days. Now, every company has a website, and every website includes the press releases – unfiltered, undiluted statements of the company’s POV, which any ordinary person might access through a Google search. So, a good press release not only lets a company target the media but gets around the media to anyone who happens upon it.
Of course, in the age of Google, you don’t just “happen” upon anything; the algorithm takes you there. So the importance of press releases in SEO (Search Engine Optimization) needs to be discussed here. The more news coverage a company can get, the more “backlinks” it receives – that is, the number of other sites talking about the company. The more reputable, credible, widely-read sites are mentioning the company, the higher its SEO score will be in algorithms like Google’s. That means any coverage, even coverage that isn’t entirely positive, can increase the company’s SEO rating, which makes a press release one of the best quick tools for making SEO values climb.
SEO is just one of the benefits of a good press release, though. We’ve covered some of the other benefits already, but here are a few that are also important:
Unlike many other written formats, the story of press release history actually has a clear origin story. Public relations people usually consider the inventor of the press release to be an American PR man named Ivy Lee, who came up with the idea in 1906.
Lee was doing publicity for the Pennsylvania Railroad when one of their trains had a major accident. To control the damage to the company’s reputation, Lee wrote up a statement explaining what had gone wrong and promising that they were “leaving nothing undone to get at the cause of the accident.” He distributed the statement to the press, and the New York Times actually printed it in full. The Pennsylvania Railroad was praised for trying to be open and honest and not trying to cover anything up. By telling their side of the story, they were able to emerge from a difficult time with their reputation enhanced. And thus, the press release was born.
After Lee, the next famous figure in the development of press releases was the Austrian-American publicist Edward Bernays. His tactics were controversial, as he would sometimes create press releases that attempted to make the case for tobacco companies and other clients with less-than-sterling reputations. But one thing he believed, which is still true today, was that expert opinion, or what he called “third party authorities,” could play a role in press releases, helping to bolster the company’s cause by lending their words to the story. This still happens today, as we saw in the previous section.
Press releases soon developed their modern form and modern rules, and because of that, some of the most famous examples of the form were the ones that knew when to break the rules. In 1995, when Michael Jordan was ready to return to basketball after his abortive attempt to become a baseball player, his publicist sent out a press release that simply quoted the Chicago Bulls legend saying two words: “I’m back.” The release was an instant viral hit, in print media, on TV, and the early internet, proving that for a smart publicist, less can be more.
As media changes, press releases will change with it – it could be, for example, that in the era of portable screens, releases will need to change their typical layout and format to grab the attention of journalists. But the basic point of a press release is unlikely to change very much from what it was in 1906. Media is storytelling, and the company wants to affect how those stories are told, so a press release is where the company tells the story from its own point of view.
A good press release is not intended to fool anyone or to tell stories that can’t be true: this is a cynical age, and the typical online reader, let alone a professional journalist, will immediately see through any outrageous claims. Remember, in press release history, the Pennsylvania Railroad was acclaimed for telling the truth and not trying to make itself look better than it was; if it had tried to pretend that nothing went wrong, everything would have gone even more wrong. Everyone knows a press release isn’t objective; but it’s possible to be honest and open while still telling a story from a subjective point of view. A great press release makes the reader say to themselves: “This is interesting. I know it’s biased, but I want to learn more about it.” If they want to find out more, then you have them right where you want them.
So make sure that whenever there is a truly newsworthy event that journalists want to cover, there is a press release to go with it: a short, easily-understandable piece that starts out by filling in all the basic information and weaves a quick but compelling story about why this is newsworthy. Don’t try to overwhelm the reader with elaborate writing style or jokes, and never make a claim that is beyond what you can prove; don’t say something is the “greatest ever,” just that the company believes it will be great.
And remember Ivy Lee’s “Declaration of Principles,” where he explained what the new form of the press release would be: “I am always at your service for the purpose of enabling you to obtain more complete information concerning any of the subjects brought forward in my copy.” Helping people obtain the information they need about something newsworthy; that’s the purpose of a press release and everything that comes after it is sent out.
A company has two main, connected reasons for issuing news releases. It wants media coverage, and it wants that media coverage to be favorable. Sending out a press release is the easiest, quickest way to make sure that journalists know about a new product, or an event, or something else the company considers newsworthy. It tells them why this is worth covering in a story. And while it can’t guarantee favorable coverage, it can at least provide a quick outline of what a favorable story would look like.
As short as possible, usually around 300-400 words. Remember, busy journalists get press releases every day; they won’t even want to start reading something if it looks like it would take a lot of time to get through. A good press release leaves out anything that is not relevant to what it’s announcing, so it’s not the place to tell the reader the history of the company or its rivals. Instead, it should start with the announcement and then spend a few short paragraphs giving the supporting facts that a good story would need to contain. A press release shouldn’t feel like it tells the whole story, otherwise what would be the point of writing an article based on it? It should offer all the basic points while encouraging the reader to go and find out more and add to it.
Well, of course! Remember, writing is the cheapest, fastest form of publicity, and a press release, for relatively little money, can fuel other, more expensive forms of publicity: if you get a TV news report inspired by it, then it’s on the TV station’s budget, not the company’s. Press releases are also worth it because they lead to exposure that you literally can’t buy. No one can (or should) make a major media outlet run a story about a company or its products and services, but a press release, properly written and targeted, can at least increase the chances that such a story will be created. No other form of publicity, no matter how much it costs or how elaborate it is, can do that.
Well, of course not! If anything, press releases have become more relevant over time. When they started, there wasn’t all that much media coverage in existence, and it was really just a way of helping to create newspaper coverage. Today newspapers still exist, and so do too many other forms of media to count, all hungry for content 24 hours a day. No one could possibly arrange different publicity strategies for each one, every single day, so a press release is necessary: something that is quick to create, infinitely adaptable to different audiences and media, and can be delivered across the world with the click of a button.
While they can cost as little as $50, the general thinking by experts is that it costs at least $500, and up to $2500, “to retain an experienced, skilled press release writer.” The cost of the writer will be most of the cost of creating the release, given how easy they are to format and send out in the modern era, but the cost is worth it: if you try to create releases on the cheap, the writer may need to be given a lot of information upfront and be edited a lot when they’re done – both of which cost time, and time is money. By retaining a good and reliable writer, you can be assured of a consistent flow of good releases written in a consistent house style, and you won’t need to monitor their work as closely.
As a general rule, anything that journalists wouldn’t consider newsworthy is not worthy of a press release. You don’t need to send out a release about every move you make: a typical new hire is someone who gets announced in a company-wide email, not an external press release. A major shake-up in management, a new product that is different from what’s come before, an event that will make news with or without a release – these are things that have to be addressed. If a company announces every little thing, journalists will stop reading anything they send out. So although releases are written from the company’s POV, make sure they are written with empathy for the journalist’s POV: if you were a journalist, would you think this was worthy of a story? If not, leave it as an internal announcement.
There is no rule as to how often to send out press releases or how many to send. There are some rules that should be followed in general, like: don’t send out releases about everything, and above all, never send so many press releases that journalists will consider it spam. Another related rule is that you shouldn’t send every press release to every single journalist you know. Targeting them to the journalists who might be most interested in them, or just spacing them out so that no one gets too many in the same week or month, can ensure that the releases are actually read and not just deleted. Again, empathize with journalists; as you get to know more of them and more about them, you’ll know how often you need to get in touch with them to keep them interested and keep up the relationship.
The primary elements of a press release include the company letterhead, always placed right at the top; the publicists’ contact information; the nature of the release (for immediate release or embargoed); the headline (and sub-heading, if any). After that comes the body of the release, starting with the dateline, just like in a regular news story: where the story is being reported from or where it took place. Then the body moves on to “who, what, where, when and why,” followed by the supporting information, expert quotes, and anything else that will help tell the story – but nothing more than that. It ends with some boilerplate information that describes what the company is and what it does, so the reader will know exactly who is sending out this release and for whose benefit it has been created. The boilerplate information is not up to the release writer but needs to be the exact same wording that the company uses for every single press release.