- Category: Media
By George Monbiot
Journalists speak only one language, and that's their own. If you're going to reach them you have to speak that language too. This means that your press release should mimic the format and style of a news story. It's a simple and straightforward formula and (sorry to be dictatorial) it MUST be applied. If it isn't, your press release won't work. Period.
Here's how to fill it in, section by section:
 Your contact details. No journalist will run a story without them.
- The name of your organisation/disorganisation (preferably big, bold and across the top of the page).
- One or more contact names.
- Contact number(s): where contacts are DEFINITELY going to be for at least the next two days (mobile phone numbers are useful).
 An embargo means that you are instructing journalists not to publish or broadcast the information in the press release before a certain time. There are several good reasons for an embargo:
- Journalists will know they aren't going to be trumped by anyone else getting in before them.
- It creates a sense of event.
- Timelines concentrate journalists' minds.
- You know when to expect publicity, so you can plan subsequent news management around it.
This is the usual format:
EMBARGO: 00.01am, Friday 15th May
00.01am is a good time, as the papers can then keep up with the broadcasters, and it's less confusing than 00.00.
- DON'T put on an embargo if you've got some immediate news that you want on the radio or TV straight away.
- Generally, you'd embargo a press release giving advance warning of an event (till about 24 hours before the event is due to start), but not a press release which comes out once the event has started.
 The headline must be short, pithy and to the point. Avoid mystery, elaborate puns or being too clever. The purpose of the headline is to grab the journalists' attention and give them an idea of what the press release is about. If it doesn't do both of these things, they'll read no further and dump it in the bin. It must be NO MORE than eight words long. Use a big, bold font.
Writing headlines isn't easy, and generally takes a good deal of practice. So practise. Look at how they do it in the papers, then try writing headlines for imaginary scenarios, or real ones which aren't going to happen for a while. Remember: in this as in all writing, a straightforward, plain style is best.
 The first paragraph. This isn't easy either but, like the headline, it's essential to get it right. You've got ONE sentence in which to tell the whole story. If the journalist doesn't get the jist of it, she or he won't read on. · There is nothing so complicated that its essential point can't be summarised in a simple sentence. So work out what you're trying to say, then boil it down to its essence. As before, look at the news stories in the papers and see how they do it.
 The rest of the text. Must be no more than two or three paragraphs long, each of which should be no longer than one or two straightforward sentences. They should expand on what you say in the first paragraph. Keep it simple and avoid jargon. Assume that journalists know nothing. If there is other essential information which you can't fit in, put it in the Notes for Journalists section. (see below). · Above all, make sure that the first and second paragraphs have covered all the five Ws: WHO, WHY, WHAT, WHERE and WHEN.
 Your contact details again. Remember: most journalists have a three second memory, are wilfully blind and very, very stupid, so you have to keep on their case.
 Notes to journalists. This is optional. Preferably they should be on a separate page. Journalists have got very little time, and the sight of a huge block of text which is hard to digest will put them off. They want to look at the first page and know that the essentials of the story are there. If they want more, they can turn over and read on.
Generally, you'd write no more than four or five paragraphs of notes (and certainly no more than a page). This is the place for the complex information which might put journalists off if it's on the front page.
- Number the paragraphs in this section, as it makes it them look easier to digest.
What makes a press release effective:
News, of course, is meant to be all about novelty, so emphasise what's new about your action or event. If you are organising transport to get to your event or action, say so in the press release, pointing out that journalists are welcome to join you on the coach.
When to send press releases:
The most critical press release is the one that goes out about two days before the event. Without it, you won't get much coverage, if any at all. But it's a good idea to put one out much earlier than that as well - about ten days prior to the event - so that when the journalists get the second one they should be ready to respond to it. Check copy deadlines for publications that are not daily.
If it's a one-day action or event and your press person has still got the energy and resources, it's no bad thing to send out a further press release saying how it all went. A journalist's interest is pretty unpredictable, and could be stimulated at any time.
If the action or event lasts longer than one day, send out a new press release every day, as long as you've got something to say. Once the event's in the press already, there'll be plenty of opportunities for follow-ups. This is the time when you can sometimes get them to cover the issue you're trying to highlight, rather than simply the event.
Who to send them to:
The secret of all successful press releasing is getting them to the right people - so find out who the right people are. Make a list of:
- Media outlets you want to reach.
- Individual journalists who seem to be interested in or sympathetic to your cause
NB: You should adapt the tone and contents of your press release to the media you're trying to reach.
How to send press releases
Faxing is still the best way to send them, and a fax modem is invaluable. Some journalists are beginning to emerge from the Neolithic, so they might be contactable by email, but on the whole the communications industry is the last place to use up-to-date communications. Don't use snail mail: it invariably gets lost/disregarded/placed on the bottom of the pile.
To get fax numbers, simply phone the papers, TV and radio stations in question and ask for the fax number of the Newsdesk. If you also want to send your press releases to named journalists at the same organisation, it's best to get their fax numbers off them: reception will often give you the wrong fax number, or one that's been out of date for months. Keep all the fax numbers you get for future reference. Best of all, load them permanently into your computer, so, once you've decided who should get what, your fax modem can contact them automatically.
One thing of which you can be absolutely certain is that something will get lost in the newsrooms you're targeting: either your press release, the journalist's concentration or the essence of the story. This means you MUST follow it up with a phone call. Just a quick one will do. Ask: Did you get it? Will you be covering the event? Do you need any more information?
They're likely to be rude, gruff and unhelpful. But don't be put off - they're paid to be like that. Make sure you're ready, if need be, to summarise the story in one or two sentences; the first question the journalist will ask is "wot's it all about then?", and her/his attention will wander if you spend more than ten seconds telling them. However rude they are, never fail to be polite and charming: at the very least, you'll put them to shame.
One out of five people does not have clean drinking water.
Zoologist, anthropologist, author and journalist, George Monbiot is one of the new breed of opinion makers on the environment. Find him at www.monbiot.com