Half the ideas that the media decide to cover come from proposals from outside the newsroom. Most of those will be due to a reporter seeing a press release and calling for more information before they are even pitched a story angle on the news. They see so many releases, though, yours must follow certain rules to have any chance of getting their attention.
A media alert advises the press of an event that they can cover, preferably a week in advance, with a reminder the day before. It should be sent out in a bare-facts format that answers what the event is about, where it will take place, what the schedule will be, who will be speaking, and why the public should be interested.
This is likely to be the only part that a harried reporter will read, unless it demands closer attention. That comes from a one-line headline that is interesting, newsy, and cleverly worded. Another subhead line can add a little more detail to motivate the reporter to read the first paragraph. Keeping in mind the public's obsession with health, sex, and money, examples might be:
Company's Product Beats Cancer — New Study Shows Promising Results
Women Open Adult Store Aimed at Couples
Hot Local Stock — Inventor Takes Company Public
If your subject is more mundane, no need to worry. Just have everyone around you brainstorm titles for a couple of days and you will get more ideas than you can use. You can also put a few bulleted subheads at the top to increase interest.
What are your goals with the release? Do you want to sell something, publicize an event, get recognition for an award, or change your organization's image? Is your real audience the media or are you hoping they will pick it up to pass on to the ultimate consumer? If you can make this important to the broadest audience possible, that will attract more media attention. The first paragraph needs to keep the objectives in mind and explain the purpose for the release clearly in a few sentences.
The next paragraphs should provide more detail about why the subject of the release is important or relevant right now. The news hook may just be something like a new waterproofing product just before the rainy season or a horror movie to be released before Halloween. Include a quote from one or two key people involved, with titles.
Double-spaced on letterhead, the release should not be more than two pages. If you have more detail you think is really important, put it into an accompanying fact sheet or refer to a supporting document on your Web site.
“Boilerplate” is the last paragraph: a summary description of your organization that explains exactly what it is your organization does and why it is significant. Perhaps the group is advocating space tourism and is headed by a former astronaut. Or you are the world's biggest widget maker. Do not assume the reader of the press release already knows anything, no matter how big your company is or that your charity has been around for a century. Reporters' beats can change and the new one assigned to you may be surprisingly uninformed on even the basics (the assumption of the editor is that she will come up to speed quickly with the help of people like you).
In response to interest stimulated by a press release, send a media kit that is truly relevant. If this is for a reporter who is just writing background for your news, do not send everything but the kitchen sink. For a business profile, you could include prior articles written about the company and 10-Ks and -Qs if the company is public.
Basic contact information will be on your stationery, but give the name of one or, even better, two people with their cell phone numbers and e-mail addresses. The contacts should be available in the hours following a release and should check their messages frequently. If a significant reaction is expected, whoever is going to be the person to be interviewed must clear her schedule that day in order to allow reporters to meet their deadlines. If the first choice is not available, offer a backup source to answer questions.
Most press releases from U.S. companies are distributed via either Business Wire or PR Newswire (from which AP and other syndicated wire services rewrite and disseminate their versions of the news). National distribution to PR Newswire's US1 list (4,800 print outlets, over 2,000 TV and radio stations, 3,600 Web sites) costs $680 for 400 words. There are also regional, international, and trade lists available for distribution. Anyone who is willing to pay can use these, not just businesses.
Alternatively, you can distribute to your own list of relevant outlets by fax or e-mail (the smallest of which will probably not be subscribers to the wires, so you will need to do some of this anyway). Or you can use an online alternative like
Ideally, set up distribution when both you and the reporters you want to reach will be in your offices. If you send out too late in the day, no one will likely see it right away and it may get buried by the next morning's news. Routine financial news for publicly held companies is the exception.
With all media, it is smart to send a list of suggested questions. Think of every important aspect of your subject and what question would give you the opportunity to talk about it. Print journalists will generally be reading lots of material on your organization and will have a pretty good grasp of the issues. TV will be likely to want you on for a very short time and the questioning is more likely than radio to be polite and superficial. But few radio show hosts will have time to read your book or do more than scan the press kit: they handle a lot of guests and love it when they can seem like experts by asking the questions you provided. You can also encourage them to send a list of other issues they want you to address.
Be sure to include some questions that bring up controversial issues that have been in the press, which will help make the host seem like he is not giving you a free ride, maintaining his image of journalistic integrity. If he does not ask about sensitive issues, someone else may in a way that is less easy to counter.
Prepare for hostile questioning from listeners in advance by practicing with someone who can give you a hard time. Take responsibility for any mistakes your organization has made and talk about what it is doing to solve the problems that have been reported. On the other hand, you do not need to go into excessive detail, which will be more than listeners want to know (instead, refer them to your Web site for more information).
You can also use challenging moments to bridge to your main message, such as, “Despite these setbacks, we now have safeguards in place and I think everyone who knows our company agrees that we have by far the best product and service in the industry.”
Always stay calm in the face of criticism; if you get too defensive, you will make listeners think you are unsure of how right you are. Never be too argumentative with a journalist, who can talk about you after you leave or write another article without your cooperation.