A great press release can go along way in terms of gaining virtually free publicity for your business, especially in an increasingly digital media environment.

Learning to combine old tricks and new in your press release composition and distribution can help you leverage the power of both traditional media outlets, such as newspapers and magazines, and newer ones, such as blogs and social media networks, to effectively get your message to your markets.

What Has Changed?

A press release is defined as ‘a written or recorded communication directed at members of the news media for the purpose of announcing something claimed as having news value’ (Wikipedia).

Traditionally, when public relations and marketing professionals disseminated press releases to news media, that meant sending them to specific news editors and reporters via mail, fax, or email to consider running the story in print, or more recently, online.

However, as our focus increasingly shifts from print to digital, the role of mass media gatekeeper, normally reserved for editors and reporters, has expanded to include bloggers and regular Internet users who like to share stories they deem newsworthy with their friends and followers on social media sites. Public relations professionals must consider the power these new gatekeepers can have in propelling a story or brand message, since social networks can reach a large number of people if the story they post goes ‘viral’, or rapidly spreads across the Internet through endless networks of users.

As the PR landscape changes, certain techniques can help maximize exposure in this new landscape. For example, since online press releases are indexed by search engines, keyword optimization is a smart move. According to Melanie Waldmann, Social Media and Search Marketing Manager at Marketwire, 75% of public relations professionals now use keyword placement in their press releases. Releases can also be formatted with specific social media sites in mind, like Twitter, for instance, where headlines must fit within the 140-character status update limit.

Writing a Press Release -- Basic Tips

Though the press release has evolved to adapt to the increasingly digital world, some essential elements remain the same. Following are some basic tips for writing traditional press releases that have stood the test of time:

  • Write your press release like a news story, with all the most important information (who, what, when, where, why) in the beginning (inverted pyramid). The less an editor has to change, the more likely your press release will be printed as is.

    Example:
    Poll: Internet Users Place More Weight on Web Design
    Vancouver, B.C., June 3, 2009 — The demand for good web design is increasing, reveals a recent Webcopyplus online poll. Almost 25% of web users indicated “poor visual presentation” is the number one element that drives them away from websites.
  • Find a unique angle that makes your story newsworthy. For example, tie it to a recent event that made headlines or an upcoming holiday. Or, if your story has an unusual element, highlight it (e.g. ‘first ever’, or ‘record breaking’).
  • Make your press release short; one page is ideal. News editors don’t have a lot of time to sift through long releases, and studies have shown that the average consumer of Internet content has an online attention span of just a few seconds.
  • Use widely understood terms to reach a wider audience.
  • Specify release date (immediate, or delayed) and ensure the timing is relevant.
  • Keep your release factual and avoid fluffy, sales-type writing.
  • Include quotes from authority figures, including sources within your company.
  • Include a call to action along with all the necessary information needed to act (e.g. enter a contest, visit a website, etc.).
  • Include a boilerplate at the end of the release. A boilerplate includes information about the source of the release that can be reused for subsequent releases. It should include basic company information and where the reader can go for further details on the company.

    Example:

    About Webcopyplus
    Webcopyplus is a Vancouver, Canada-based web copywriting firm that helps designers and businesses increase online traffic, leads and sales with optimized web content. Clients range from independent designers to international service providers, including AT&T, Scotia Bank and 1-800-Got-Junk.

    For more information, please contact:
    [PR contact information]

Writing A Press Release -- Advanced Tips

In addition to the basic tips for writing a press release listed above, you can apply these advanced tips to further increase your press release’s exposure on the Web:

  • Include keywords that editors, reporters, and bloggers might use to search for story ideas online. Research your keywords using a free tool like Google Adwords.
  • Place your keywords in the areas most likely to be scanned by search engines, such as headlines and subheads.
  • Include relevant links within the text for the editor, blogger, or reader to find out more information, if desired.
  • Craft your headline with social media networking in mind. If your story is posted with a Twitter account, for example, the headline must fit within the 140-character limit. Also keep in mind, however, that there must be room for the story URL, and the Twitter user’s @name within these 140 characters.
  • Familiarize yourself with specifications of online news aggregators, such as Google News, which requires headlines to be between a minimum of two words in length, to a maximum of 22 for proper indexing.
  • Post your press release on your own website for additional exposure.

Strive to make your press release as ready as possible for easy dissemination through a wide variety of online channels, but ensure that you’ve double and triple checked it. If you’ve done your job well, your story could take on a life of its own online, and you’ll want to ensure the message that goes ‘viral’ is one you can be proud of.

Distributing Your Press Release

Traditionally, press releases have been distributed via snail mail, fax and email. In the interest of saving trees, a simple email, either sent individually, or using a mass email program, and follow up call can suffice.

To build your media contacts list, visit newspaper and magazine websites and look for a ‘Contact Us’ or ‘Masthead’ section. Most will include individual reporter and editor names, sections, email addresses and phone numbers. You can build your list according to the type of audience you want to reach, and have phone numbers ready to follow up after sending your release. Keep in mind that some magazines plan the stories they’re going to run months in advance, while newspapers tend to have stories assigned by the end of the week. If these specifics are not listed on their websites, try doing some good old-fashioned telephone research.

When emailing, include the press release content in the body of the email, in addition to attaching a PDF, in case the recipient is wary of opening attachments from unknown sources. Include your carefully crafted, eye-catching headline in the subject line.

For maximum online exposure, you can also submit your press release to a wire service. There are several wire services available at different prices (some at no cost) that allow you to specify which industries you want to reach. Some options include:

If you use one of these services, be sure to pay attention to their specific press release formatting requirements.

Measuring The Results of Your Press Release

The success of your press release can be measured in many ways, including the number of resulting print or online stories, the number of times your press release has been viewed, or how much additional traffic is driven to your website. Most online wire services display how many views each press release receives, and direct website traffic can be measured using tools, such as Google Analytics.

By learning how to combine traditional press release writing and distribution techniques with new ones customized for digital media, you’re on your way to taking advantage of the cost-effective marketing potential of the almighty press release.