How to Write a Press Release: Tips from Both Sides of the Laptop

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Millennials are not easily frightened. When stumped by a question or assigned a task they don’t know how to perform, they Google it.

I am sure members of the Boomer, Gen X or Gen Y generations would have done the same thing, had Google existed in those far-off days. Members of those generations tended to learn by doing (unless you’re talking about brain surgery or building a nuclear power plant).

The other day I was talking to a colleague who urged me to balance strategic topics in this content stream with more tactical, hands-on advice. That echoed a recommendation from a long-ago writing mentor: “show, don’t tell.”

Having read a few hundred press releases in my time, and written almost as many, I thought I would blog about it. I started by Googling, “How do I write a press release?” I got 1.2 billion responses. Literally.

Rather than assume at least one of those 1.2 billion responses contained the absolutely perfect guide on how to write a press release, I’m going to plow ahead with my guide, tailored specifically for communicators in electric, gas and water companies.

While all press releases share a few similar elements, writing about providers of electricity, natural gas and water services can be trickier than, say, writing about ice cream, cars or pharmaceuticals.

Tip 1: Read other people’s stuff. You will be a better writer if you pay attention to what others write about on the issues and topics that your company is interested in or needs to focus on. You should read (and view) widely because that gets you into the current stream about what is important to consumers, aka your customers.

Tip 2: Decide whether this is a newsworthy topic. How, specifically, will customers benefit from what you are considering writing about? This is where it helps to have been a member of the news media. Developing a sense of what’s newsworthy is an essential skill than can only be learned over time. What might fly in smaller markets like Casper, Wyoming, or Lafayette, Louisiana, may not work in bigger markets like Chicago or Miami. Just because a VP in your company wants to get some ink or airtime doesn’t automatically make that topic newsworthy. You might check your instincts by calling a reporter you have worked with previously and asking if they would be interested in covering what you’re considering writing about.

Newsworthy: “Consumers will save money and help protect the environment because your company has found a way to generate pollution-free electricity from dirt.”

Not newsworthy: An in-depth discussion of what a wet flue gas desulfurization unit does and why it costs so much to build.

Tip 3: Develop a catchy headline. Many reporters are so pressed for time that they can only scan the headlines of the dozens to hundreds of story pitches they receive every day. That number includes emailed press releases, trending tweets, emailed complaints/comments from readers/viewers, posts to Instagram and Facebook and material that comes in via the U.S. Postal Service. That’s in addition to what their editor may have in mind.

Catchy: “Got 30 minutes? Grab a burger and Recharge Your EV!”

Not Catchy: North Central Iowa Expands its EV Charging Network

Tip 4: Craft an awesome lead paragraph. We live in a sound-bite culture, which means you have less time than ever, perhaps 5 seconds, to grab a reporter’s attention. Consider the lead a proverbial fishhook you insert into a reporter’s brain, then pull back sharply, setting the hook and making it harder for a reporter to escape. Do not try to cram in too many details or technical information into a lead. The lead’s one and only purpose is to get the reporter to continue reading.

Awesome lead: “Upholstery has always been a reliable place to find loose change, after-dinner mints and paper clips. Recently, our utility searched around in upholstery and came up with a great idea.” (Thanks, LADWP, for an excellent example!)

Not Awesome lead: “During the COVID-19 pandemic, when it is imperative that utility field workers make protective face coverings an integral part of their personal protective equipment (PPE), our utility found a way to home-grow face coverings that also resisted electric arc flashing, thereby complying with section 1.2.3.4.5.6 of the International Electrical Standards code.”

Tip 5: Sprinkle some local color into the release. This is where you highlight angles that could appeal to your media audience. If you are pitching a local weekly newspaper, play up a new product being developed by a local citizen. Maybe there is a feature story about an employee who has been a Scout leader for 25 years, told through the eyes of those he or she has led.

Smaller local papers might print a photo and story about a donation from your company to a local charitable organization. This would likely be the only time a media organization might run a photo of your CEO handing an oversized check to the head of the local Children’s Literacy Project. For bigger media markets, highlight something unusual or unexpected that may have consequences beyond the immediate vicinity.

Great color: “Charlene Hook cherished her home of 30 years north of Corcoran, where pomegranate and pistachio orchards stretched for miles. So choosing to burn it down last year was a difficult decision.” (The Los Angeles Times, February 4, 2018)

Bad color: Too many to mention. Don’t confuse “color” with buzzwords and twaddle. Too many press release writers aspire for color and edginess by loading up on buzzwords like “business disrupter,” “value proposition,” “leverage” or “synergy.”

Check out this video on business buzzwords to avoid and this recent piece in The Atlantic. And click here and here for some earlier posts on this topic.

Tip 6: Let reporters know how to reach you. It is hard to believe, but I still run across press releases where the spokesperson’s full contact information — email, office phone, cell phone and twitter handle — is not included. Be sure to have that contact information easily found on the press release, and on your company’s website.

So there you have it. If you follow this six-step plan, the release itself, as they say, will write itself.

Photo Credits: iStock

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