Effective Press Release Writing: The Old Lady Who's Been Hit by a Bus

Posted on
November 12, 2020

Before I was an Account Executive here at Mallory Group I was a writer in the process of carving a tiny niche for myself writing for luxury lifestyle magazines. Truthfully, I fell into sports PR by happy accident. I’ve been at Mallory Group for eight months now and I’m discovering I have a knack for unexpected things, like corralling couriers from Devon to Scotland trying to get hunks of venison delivered to journalists on time (don’t ask), and flattering Instagram influencers into working with us. Other aspects of my job are more of a challenge - I knew very little about the world of professional sport going in. Nothing that couldn’t be solved with a bit of swatting-up and learning on the job. The one aspect I never expected to struggle with is writing press releases.

I realised something needed to be done a few weeks ago when a colleague handed back a heavily revised draft of a release I wrote: it was accurate, there were no glaring typos, the information was all there, it was just… boring. She’s too nice to say that to me, I inferred it from her annotations. If I am honest with myself, I knew when I was writing it that I wouldn’t find it very engaging as a reader. I suppose I just hoped that the audience I was writing for would have a vested interest in the product which, as any PR worth their salt knows, is a losing game. If you don’t care why should anyone else?  

My boss came to the rescue and enrolled me on the Press Association’s ‘Effective Press Release Writing’ course, which I completed last week. From one newly-minted PR to others out there, I’ve detailed some of the key lessons I learned.

Lesson 1: Advertisers persuade in order to sell, PRs inform in order to educate, journalists deliver the story

This might seem obvious but I keep coming back to this notion whenever I draft new releases. As a PR you’re a conduit; you feed information from the client to the audience they wish to reach. Journalists write the stories, so PRs must organise information in a way that is easy for them to read and digest.

Historically, when I’ve been presented with a brief I’ve seen it as my job to sell the product. While PR is often integrated into marketing channels, I’m not supposed to be doing their job for them - it makes for weak press releases and a patronised marketing team. Approach every release as though it is news and keep it functional and concise. The journalists will take care of the narrative flare. 

Which leads me nicely onto Lesson 2: Keep it simple!

As a pretentious English Literature graduate, I’m naturally wordy. This serves me well writing poetry but it’s not what’s needed for effective press releases. I think a reason for my over-complicating things was that I was worried about staying aligned with the tone of voice my clients assume across other channels. While consistency is important, there is such a thing as over-formalising. Your releases shouldn’t read like corporate jargon, just plain spoken English. 

In one of the exercises I did on the course I wrote “this reflects [the brand’s] ongoing commitment to championing technological innovation.” The course leader instantly pointed out that it sounded like it was coming from ‘head office’ (that is to say slightly lifeless). Keep the language you use as neutral and uncomplicated as possible: if it sounds like it’s coming from corporate, it belongs in quotes. 

This brings me to the final lesson: An old lady’s been hit by a bus!

The course leader presented me with a hypothetical scenario which I’ll paraphrase:

From your house you can see a bus stop up the road from your front room window. An old lady wearing a cream jacket and holding a walking aid is waiting for her bus, which normally comes at 12:30 but is delayed by five minutes. Your mum calls you from the kitchen at the back of the house and asks you to go out and get some milk. As you walk out of your house, the old lady wobbles and falls into the road. She is hit by a bus. Shocked, you run back inside. 

What is the first thing you tell your mum as you come into the kitchen? 

Everyone on the course said something to the effect of “Mum, an old lady’s been hit by a bus!” 

It’s a really simple but effective example of processing superfluous information and only drawing out the exciting newsworthy point. This is what you should always be doing when writing press releases. I’ve worked in newsrooms before - if I can’t process the information in front of me in under thirty seconds, your release is going in the bin. The higher up the chain the release is sent, the less time will be spent reading it. I was told a rather depressing statistic: you have on average 5 seconds to grab an editor’s attention before your release is discarded. Identify the proverbial lady who’s been hit by a bus and draw journalists in with information that is absolutely relevant to their audience. 

Find the emotional, the incendiary, the evocative in the information you’ve been given and put it front and centre as an introduction. This is your enticement for the journalist to read on. The next line of your release should be a concise summary of why you’re writing it and the key points. 

From there on in, simply think like a reader. 

If a headline reads: Old Lady Hit by Bus

Your next question will be “what happened?” 

She stepped out in front of a bus 

“Well is she ok?” 

She’s in a stable condition…

I’m sure you catch my drift. Think sequentially and think about the questions you yourself would want answering. Remember, if you can hook readers in the first 200 words, you’re much more likely to be published.

Happy (effective) press release writing!

Posted on
November 12, 2020

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