Hey! You’re a Writer, You Can Do Publicity

Ever heard that one? Writers are always getting asked to do PR, whether it’s for the school carnival or the local art show. Or maybe you want to promote your new book. So let’s talk about press releases.

Every publication gets bombarded with press releases, articles written to promote a product, service, person or event. These articles are produced by writers working for the entities they’re promoting. These can be good-paying jobs, and press releases are often as well written as anything you see published in commercial publications. The thing that makes them different from advertising is that no one promises to publish them. Once they arrive on an editor’s desk, that editor can choose to toss them in the recycle bin, run them verbatim, publish just a few lines, or assign a writer to use the press release as the starting point for an article. If they have the space and feel the subject deserves a spot, they will welcome the press release, especially if it comes with good photos.

Of the dozens of press releases that arrive every day, maybe one-fourth are relevant. The rest don’t fit the publication’s subject matter or readership at all. Others are just looking for free advertising. The public relations people who produce the press releases can be a great help to editors or drive them crazy. Calling every day or sending odd gifts or boxes of confetti does not help. But a good solid press release makes the editor’s job easier and gets your story published.

So, you’re been asked to do PR. Publicity has many aspects, including flyers, posters, email blasts, and listings in various publications, but the basic tool is the press release, which is emailed to all print and online publications, as well as radio and TV outlets that might be interested.

Here, quickly, is the formula:

* Keep it to one page.

* Start with name of organization and complete contact information.

* Date.

* FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE—or a date when you want the information released.

* A headline.

* A catchy opening paragraph.

* Describe what it’s all about, giving the who, what, where, when and how much.

* More details, emphasizing the connection to the publication’s readers.

* General info about the organization.

* Links, names and numbers for more information.

* High-resolution photos if at all possible.

* You don’t need to include a letter. The editor will recognize that it’s a press release and will contact you if he or she needs more information.

Just as you should tailor your query or cover letter to the publication and address it to a specific editor, you should do the same with your press release. As with any kind of writing, be specific. Provide facts, not fluff. And do not tell the editor what to do. For that, you have to pay for an ad.

I welcome your questions and comments.

Now go write that press release or anything you want.

>PR, Part 2

>Whew, that last blog entry threw a lot of stuff out in a hurry, didn’t it? Sorry, but it gives you an example of how newspaper writing works sometimes. You write as fast as you can type and hope it comes out all right in print. There are definitely times when you look at the published newspaper and wish you could gather up every copy and throw it in the trash.

But we’re freelancers. We have more time, right? Well, sometimes.

Let’s get pack to PR. You’d be amazed at how many press releases arrive at a newspaper office every day. They come by fax, by e-mail, by snail mail and get dropped off in person. Watch the editor duck so that in-person deliverer doesn’t see her and ask for an unscheduled meeting.

Press releases may be well-written or incomprehensible. They may include photos. They may have contact information or not. They may come with all kinds of extras designed to woo the editor. For example, I have received CDs, books, a glittery costume-party mask, pages packed in a big red film canister and envelopes full of that little gold and silver confetti that people put on party tables. DON’T DO THAT. They’re probably still picking that stuff out of the carpet years later.

When you decide to send out press releases, whether you’re a staff PR person or a freelancer, first consider who will care about whatever you’re publicizing. Local newspapers cannot publish stories that have no local connection. So if I’m in Portland, OR and you’re pushing a new album by a singer from Dallas, don’t send me the CD and the press release unless that singer is coming to Portland. I’ll keep the CD, if it’s any good, but the story will never run. Every newspaper has a mission, whether it’s to publish what’s happening in a particular geographical area or covering a particular subject, such as a religion, an age group, or a hobby. Your press release must fit that mission or it goes straight into the recycle bin.

Assuming the release fits, let’s talk about writing the release. In some cases, you may need to vary the press release to fit the publication, so you may be writing several different press releases. The release needs to be short and full of information. Some newspapers fill their pages with press releases published as submitted, but better newspapers do not run press releases verbatim, so don’t expect your exact words to appear in the paper. Essentially they serve as notes for a reporter to use to write his own story. Remember that you’re serving your client, not your ego.

The ideal press release will have: a header that tells us who you are, whom to call for more information, whether this is for immediate release, what section of the paper you’d like it to be in (is this designated for the calendar section or are you hoping for a big feature in the business section?), an interesting lead, a second paragraph that makes clear exactly what the story is, and several more paragraphs providing additional information. AND, the ideal press release will include a good photo with all the people in it clearly identified.

With releases where the timing matters, find out what the newspaper’s deadlines are and make sure you get the release in on time, preferably early. If it’s too late, it’s too late. The space is filled, the paper has gone to press. Most papers publish their deadlines somewhere, but if they don’t, telephone and ask.

How to submit? I’d go with e-mail these days. Copy your release into the body of an e-mail. Don’t send stories as attachments to editors who don’t know you. You will have to send your photo as an attachment, preferably in JPEG format, but they won’t open it until they have decided the release is not spam. You can drop press releases off in person if you have time and you might even be able to meet the editor, but the chances of her being available are slim and she’d rather have it already in the computer. You can fax a release, but editors tell me they’d rather have e-mail. If you have something to publicize and no time to write a release, you could just call the editor, give her the basics and let her decide whether it’s worth a story. But that well-written press release gives her something to hold onto and remind her to find a space for it.

Sooner or later, someone will ask you to write a press release. Why? Because you’re a writer and they’re not. I hope these guidelines help.

>PR, part 1

>I apologize to those subscribers who received an e-mail blog that simply said, “P.” I hit the wrong button, and boom, it was published. Here’s the real blog, a day late. The dogs ate it.

In responses to my previous blog about advertorial, some of you mentioned doing public relations work. I’ve been on both sides of the press release, so I thought I’d discuss that a little bit.
Public relations is a cousin to journalism. They teach it in the same department at the universities and you use many of the same skills, but the object is to publicize a product, service, person, business or whatever. As in journalism, you want to convey information, but it’s more one-sided, making your client look good.
You can make more money at PR than you can at freelance journalism. You may also have the opportunity to take all-expense-paid trips and enjoy formal events with the leaders of whatever industry you work for. The downside is that you’re not free to write what you want. You have to write what the client wants. Also, you do not get a byline.
I worked in the public relations department for the California School Employees Association ages ago. We organized events, put out a magazine that went to all the state’s classified school employees (everybody who isn’t a teacher or an administrator), and issued press releases to all the local media. Whatever we did had to be approved by our boss and the president of the organization. The press releases fit into a premade template and always ended with a paragraph explaining how CSEA represented X number of employees. Except for having to get up early in the morning and having a boss with a tendency to throw things, it was a good job, with excellent pay and benefits. I got to dress up and travel all over the state.
I have done unpaid press releases over the years for music and writing organizations to which I belonged as well as for my own books and concerts.
Press releases are really quite easy. You need to: address it to the right editor, provide contact information for you and your client so they can get more information if they need it, write a headline and an interesting lead and give them the facts, including dates, prices, addresses, phone numbers, etc. The best press releases are just one page long. If the editors wants more information, they’ll ask for it.
Most editors prefer press releases to be sent by e-mail so they don’t have to retype them. Some run the releases verbatim, while others rewrite them, shorten them into briefs, or use them as the basis for their own stories. Sometimes they throw them away because they don’t fit their needs. Next week we’ll talk about how to keep your press releases out of the recycle bin.
When you write press releases, you don’t work for the newspaper; you work for whoever wants the publicity. How do you get these gigs? You might want to do some free PR for your church, social organizations or whatever to get samples. Then write a resume that stresses your public relations skills and get some business cards printed. You can look for classified ads and offer your skills to organizations that need publicity, but your best bet is to join the local chamber of commerce and start making connections. You should also check out PRSA, the Public Relations Society of America, which offers leads to public relations opportunities.
Of course, there is far more to say about PR, but this gives you something to think about.