October 24, 2021 Peter Bakker

12 Press Release Secrets that Your Publicist Won’t Tell You

It’s the big day. Your latest product is ready to launch. You’ve made an exciting new hire. Your company has reached new heights. Now, it’s time to let the world know. So, you finally hit “Send” on your triumphant press release and patiently wait for a barrage of calls. And wait. And wait.

Why aren’t journalists scrambling to secure interviews? Why hasn’t the Financial Times emailed for more information? Why are the only responses to your carefully crafted press release a few sad unsubscribe requests? Did you really need to pay thousands of dollars to that PR agency?

Most press releases yield underwhelming results, because most people who write them have little understanding of how media gatekeepers make editorial choices. Instead of deciphering the code for getting coverage, publicists tend to stick to a tired formula of copying and pasting this week’s news atop last year’s press release. If you want to get the coverage that your news deserves, you’ll need to toss out that template and learn to empathize with those who decide what’s worthwhile. Here are some tips for winning their hearts with your next release.

1. Know your audience

The audience of a press release is the press. It is not the target audience that you identified for your marketing campaigns. It is not your C-suite, customers or clients. Whether your release is a success will depend on its appeal to journalists. This must be the core criterium by which you judge the quality of your press release.

2. Understand their role

Journalists don’t see their stories as vehicles for publicizing your products. If you tell an editor that you want them to promote your company, they’ll point you toward the advertising department. The media’s responsibility is to inform and entertain their audiences with the most relevant news within their niche. If they are suspected of shilling products, they’ll lose their audiences. To gain coverage, your press release must make a strong case for why your story is newsworthy and engaging.

3. One is not enough

A single press release is rarely effective for earning all the different coverage your news might warrant. It’s essential to segment your mailing list for different media and to personalize emails to especially high-value media outlets. A single announcement might require a dozen versions of the release to maximize uptake. The more time you can spend customizing for each audience, the better results you’ll achieve.

4.Read/watch/listen to their content

You can’t convince a media gatekeeper that your news is perfect for their outlet if you don’t know what they cover or how they cover it. A great way to annoy a health editor is to send them a bevy of bulletins about your new mortgage deals. A podcaster who conducts long-form interviews will unsubscribe if you keep requesting coverage in their non-existent gift guide. However, a journalist who writes road-trip stories will adore your press release if it’s all about the ways your new roadster is perfect for long trips.

5. Watch your tone

Members of the press are proud of their ability to sniff out bullshit, so don’t speak to them in the punchy brand tone you created to appeal to consumers or clients. It can instantly turn journalists off. Instead, talk like a reporter. Efficiently present facts that might persuade them to cover your news, and save the cutesy punchlines for your social media channels.

“A press release should make it easy to glean important information quickly,” says Bek Van Vliet, an editor who’s worked at Travel + Leisure, The Magazine and others. “It should be relatively straightforward and not try to be clever. Include the who, what, when, where and, most importantly, why I should care. I don’t want to be taken on a journey. I just want to see the key points without any effort.”

While journalists are generally hard-nosed, they’re not a monolith, and your tone can vary based on the outlets you’re targeting. Especially in headlines. A snarky gossip website might appreciate a bit of bravado; a luxury yachting blog will tolerate an ornate flourish or two; a hard-news newspaper only wants to know the facts, and in as few words as possible. In short: write each press release in a similar tone to that of the target media.

6. Be irresistible

The average media gatekeeper receives hundreds of releases a day that they don’t have time to read. You might think your press release contains the world’s most exciting announcement. But to an editor, it’s just another all-caps subject line clogging up their inbox. To cut through the clutter, you must offer something superior.

Force editors to stop scrolling and open your email by putting your most exciting news in the subject, headline, sub-head and first couple of sentences. Don’t be afraid to use shameless, click-baiting tactics to draw attention to your subject line. When possible, promise to reveal secrets, name-drop celebrities or offer tantalizing data. (But never be dishonest.)

7. Say something interesting

Journalists know that the direct quotes you attribute to your CEO are probably fake, because they’re written in a tone that humans don’t speak aloud. Plus, these types of quotes rarely contain anything of value. Media people hate having their time wasted reading canned quotes that they can’t use in their reporting. Either interview your CEO and get a great, real quote in a conversational tone, or just skip the whole farce.

8. Give them ideas

Help editors find a home for your news by providing suggestions for coverage that might fit in their outlets. Press releases get better traction when they pitch a story, rather than just informing the press that a product exists. If you’ve just released a new flavor of rum, suggest a roundup of warm cocktails in the runup to the winter holidays. If your hotel brand has a celebrity endorser, tempt top-tier media with a three-day stay, including activities with the star. If you’re promoting a new investment fund, promise exclusive interviews with your data scientists, who can explain the intricacies of their stock-picking methods.

9. Not all press is good press

Once your release has gone out, you need to gauge its success to hone your future releases. Simply counting the number of times your release gets reprinted online is not a good metric. There are many press-release mills that post any old release, and which nobody actually reads. This is not earned media. If you’re paying a publicist to get the word out to their exclusive list, you should not count these reprints as placements. Instead, have a clear idea of which sites and shows you want to appear in, and demand that your publicist provides readership/viewership data for any media that’s not on that list.

10. Relationships matter

Most journalists have publicists in their social circles. And all things being equal, members of the media will usually choose to cover news from a PR they like and trust. These are the publicists who only send relevant press releases, who quickly answer questions, and who drink at the same watering holes. Your release will have a head start if you’ve already befriended half of the recipients. Even if you aren’t besties with everyone on your press list, you should make a strong effort to build positive relationships and avoid getting blacklisted. Don’t be demanding or make unsolicited phone calls; wine and dine them; send the occasional box of schwag.

11. Get the basics right

Always answer “who, what, when, where, why and how.” Remember to date the release, provide your contact details and always triple check everything is spelled correctly, especially people’s names. And make it easy to get additional assets. “To make a release really functional and amazing, include a link to an image library that I can download relevant high-res pics from,” says Van Vliet.

12. Consider alternatives

If your company makes too many announcements to the press, you’re likely to get auto-filed into a junk box or, worse yet, unsubscribed. Not every piece of news requires a press release. You’ll build a better rapport with the press, and earn a higher success rate, if you spread your news across multiple channels. If an announcement isn’t highly newsworthy, consider getting the word out through other high-ROI channels like EDMs and PPC campaigns or with the power of our AI-powered content marketing platform, Contrend.