How to Make a News Release Work
First, let’s get some terms straight. These days, journalism schools are teaching students that a “press release” should be called a “news release.” Last time I heard, television, radio, cable and the Web don’t use printing presses. So starting now, it’s a news release.
Don’t be shocked, but there’s a really good chance your news release will be deleted without anyone really looking at it. Even if they do, there’s also a chance they won’t think it’s as important as you do. The fact is, a busy, large city newsroom gets hundreds of releases a week. I know. I’ve been there. There’s a whole lot of competition for space and airtime.
Still, if you have a good story to tell (and let me repeat . . . if you have a good story to tell) and you tell it effectively, a news release can be a great way to get some free publicity.
So how do you write an effective release that makes news?
1. Have a real story to tell. It’s OK to release information about a new lawyer joining your firm. But don’t expect a lot of coverage, other than a few lines in the law trades or business journals, unless you are hiring Robert Shapiro or Gloria Allred. There’s a much better chance of getting significant mass media coverage if you have some interesting feature material. For example, I once got great coverage for an adoption attorney who personally visited dozens of foreign countries and lobbied to change laws to allow orphans to be more easily adopted by U.S. families.
2. Write it creatively. Remember that the headline and the lead sentence to your story is everything. Often, that’s the only thing an editor will read. Make it compelling. Don’t write your article “upside down” — put the most important information at the top of the story rather than the end. Save the information about your law firm for later in the release. Keep it all on one page if you can. Or, if you need a second page, put the background on your law firm at the end. Take the news release on the adoption lawyer, for instance:
Bad lead: “The Law Firm of Jones & Smith, named one of the best law firms in the state for the 20th consecutive year, has announced that attorney and partner Rita Jones will be travelling to Africa to visit orphanages. Jones has been with the firm for 12 years, after serving in the U.S. Prosecutor’s Office.”
Better lead: “Worldwide there are a staggering 17.9 million children who have lost both parents and are living in orphanages or on the streets. Attorney Rita Jones has decided to do something about it.”
3. Skip the adjectives and editorial comments, such as “This brave attorney embarks on yet another extraordinary journey.” Write clearly and concisely.
4. Include some meaningful quotes.
Weak quote: “Firm Founder and President Bernard Smith noted, “We at Jones & Smith are extremely proud of our partner Rita Jones as this Super Lawyer takes law to another level. Blah, blah and blah.”
Better quote: “Many of these children are undernourished and generally not cared for. Sadly, in certain countries too many of them end up victims of human trafficking. My goal is to fight for global change,” said Rita Jones.
Getting Your News in the Right Hands
Now that you’ve written that great release and it’s been well proofed (please don’t forget that, or your firm will look silly), all you need to do is mail it to all the news media in your area, right? Wrong. Your work is only half done. The challenging part is getting your news release into the right hands.
1. Choose the media outlets that make sense. Sometimes people will deliver a news release to an entire list that contains specialty publications or programs that would never cover a law-related item. So cull your list first. When doing so, don’t forget to include college alumni publications and the suburban papers near the law firm or in the towns where your lawyers reside.
2. Forget about paper mail. In these days of electronic delivery, your chances are even slimmer anyone will ever see your news release if you send paper. News personnel are busier than ever, and some don’t get to their paper mail for weeks. Send it by email. Make the subject line compelling, as discussed earlier regarding the headline. This is key. Also, be sure the body of the release is clearly there, in the message body, when the email is opened. Don’t expect people to open an attachment. And always include a link to the release if it is posted on your website.
3. Email it to the right person. Don’t only send your release to a generic email address such as “Newsroom@TimesUSA” or to the publisher or news director — unless it’s a small media outlet where those positions are held by the same person. Sure, send it to them — but do some research, too, to find out which reporter is most apt to do a story on the subject matter you are releasing. Include that reporter on your release list. There are directories available in nearly every state that list specific people in the media and their beats. But watch out: These directories quickly become out of date with all the movement in the media industry. It’s OK to call the front desk to confirm a name and email address.
4. Don’t forget the talk shows. Depending on the nature of your news, it might merit an appearance on a radio or TV talk show. In that case, you’ll want to direct your release to the producer of the program. It’s easy to find out who that is: Consult your directory or make a call to the station and ask. Start with the local stations. If it’s a really extraordinary story, stations will often submit it to their network or syndicated shows. Then, you’ve really hit the big time. (Regarding preparation for such an over-the-air experience, consult my last column, “How to Behave with the News Media,” here.)
5. Calls and follow-up. If it’s a really big story — and I mean really, really big and really, really important — it’s OK to call a reporter to give him or her the breaking news. Consider giving a reporter an exclusive. If they know the story is all theirs, you might get more in the long run. It’s also fine to call the reporter to confirm that he or she got your release. But don’t call 10 minutes after sending it. Let a day or two go by. And don’t be surprised if you learn that the email hasn’t been seen. If you’re lucky enough to reach the reporter via the phone, be prepared to paraphrase the news you are releasing and ask if there is any interest.
6. Create relationships with the media. Get to know key media people. Network with them. Hang out where they hang out. Invite them to use you as a resource if they are doing a story on a legal issue. Tell them you don’t expect anything in return. If you become a valued source, you might become the “go-to” person in your practice area and you could get more and more press and airtime as time goes by. (Oh, and never expect any compensation.)
Eventually, you might get your own show, of course. Just don’t ask for it right away.
Jon Quick has 25-plus years in media management for CBS and Emmis Communications. He now operates Q Public Relations & Marketing, an advertising agency that works almost exclusively with law firms. Unlike many attorneys, Jon rarely wears a black suit and he does smile. Contact him at Jon@QPRmarketing.com.
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