The press release is dying, but not dead yet. Even when it dies, the basic principles have broad applications across communication vehicles and channels.
The inverted pyramid
Classic press release wisdom is to front-load it with the most vital information: Who, what, when, where, how much. That is still the prevailing wisdom. In the highly unlikely event that a reporter somewhere is actually reading a press release, let alone a press release from you, you have to assume that they will only get a little ways into it before deciding whether or not to pursue it. Therefore the lead (or lede, or first paragraph) usually is very direct:
Mishiko Kamura, PhD, will present his controversial “flat Earth” theory at a free public presentation from 6-7:30 Tuesday, November 15, in room 178, Building C, at Lane Community College.
In one sentence, the reader knows everything they must know about this event: The presenter’s name, the topic, who may attend, what it costs, when and where. From that point, it can get into more detail and include quotes, etc. The information becomes progressively less important as you go, hence the inverted pyramid.
What a press release is
The phrase “press release” gets thrown around a lot, as a catch-all for any sort of announcement. Originally (and still, to a degree), the press release is there to say, “Hey, look at me.” Before there were wire services and countless thousands of companies vying for media attention, it was a simple and unobtrusive way to let an editor or reporter know about something that was happening, or was about to happen. It was more or less a courtesy.
That has changed. On any given day, in any industry, there are an unimaginable number of press releases. Some go out in an e-mail, while others are distributed via wire services. In either case, the likelihood of their generating media interest is extremely low.
What a press release is not
A true press release is not an article. It is the most declarative, straightforward, jargon-free version of a “story” that you can possibly imagine. Ninety-five percent of the time, it should fit on one page, or no more than two. It spares all non-essential details. It is supposed to be a boring, but to-the-point, read.
It is not a vehicle for self-important boasting, stock phrases or cliches, like “We are pleased to announce” or “Groundbreaking research.”
Why they won’t be around much longer
First of all — and this hopefully doesn’t come as a shock — the media landscape is completely different now than just a few years ago, and it continues to change. Companies and organizations have become media outlets (albeit biased ones), and the people who work at (presumably) unbiased outlets know where to find new information. They have RSS feeds. They have Twitter accounts. They have blogs they follow. They do not need press releases.
That said, smaller outlets like hometown papers still rely on press releases because many of their readers or viewers still rely on them. If you have relationships with members of the media, and they receive a release from you, there’s still a chance they’ll read it. If the outlet is small enough, they might even turn around and run it, verbatim, as a “special to” the paper, or even give you a byline. And that is why you should …
A press release is a press release, and a story is a story, but a press release disguised as a story should serve you better in most cases. Generally, you’ll still be using the inverted pyramid and still avoid jargon and stock phrases, but you’ll add color and adjectives. If it was a story, the aforementioned example might start more like this:
The Earth is flat, and your teachers were lying to you though they didn’t know it at the time. So goes a controversial theory by Mishiko Kamura, PhD, who will present his research at a public event from 6-7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 15.