What’s a press release?

A press release is a concise document containing newsworthy information, sent out by a person or organization to members of the media. Press releases are useful tools in getting coverage and raising public awareness, especially when crafted according to proper guidelines and sent to the right journalists.

Why might a local organization put out a press release? What’s the difference between business-as-usual and newsworthy content? At Imagine Communications, we start with a conversation and can often tease out public relations, or PR, opportunities that clients are too close to see themselves. Journalists are always looking for content related to fundraising events and charity accomplishments as well as expansions, new locations and new hires at local businesses. There might also be a human-interest element hiding in plain sight — like a pair of sisters who took up the same (male-dominated) trade apprenticeship, or a father-daughter duo who launched a business based on a challenge and a logo she drew.

Ideally, a press release is coupled with a pitch that offers reporters a personalized “hook,” a way to present that story to their audience. This might be a connection to a larger local or national story; how the story fits in with the reporter’s particular “beat” (the topics they specialize in); a way the information contradicts popular preconceptions; or a relatable human-interest angle.

The first press release was, according to most accounts, composed by Ivy Lee (1877-1934), the father of modern public relations, about the 1906 Atlantic City train wreck. While this is a grisly origin for what is now a staple in the PR world, it’s important to note why this first press release worked. Lee wrote an honest account on behalf of his client, the Pennsylvania Railroad, noting relevant facts succinctly, and distributed it to the right people. The New York Times reproduced his statement exactly as written.

Newsrooms have always been busy, deadline-oriented places. In recent years, with the changing landscape as “vulture funds” bought up newspapers, reporters who survived layoffs are finding their workload has grown even further. Add to that the new responsibilities of the information age — from long-form podcasts and Twitter (now X?) summations, to curating a social media presence and releasing TikTok opinion pieces — and you have some very overworked journalists.

A good press release should save these reporters time and provide them with quality, newsworthy information that’s ready to publish.

The Imagine Communications Public Relations team makes sure all press releases follow best practices in structure and tone, with a brief subject line showing busy reporters it’s worth their time to open the email. Press releases typically have six parts: a headline, summary, dateline (the date and location of the news), body, boilerplate and closing. Each should be as brief as possible while also conveying the relevant details. The boilerplate, which is a quick overview of the organization putting out the press release, should tout an organization’s history and accomplishments while not sounding overly “advertisey.”

All of this should be written in AP style, the standard for newspapers, magazines and television reporters. This allows busy reporters to cut and paste verbatim, the modern equivalent of what the Times did with Lee’s 1906 press release.

Lastly, remember the essential element of any press release: honesty! A press release is not a paid advertisement or a work order, and reporters are going to do their job and report. It’s up to the reporter if they want to pick up the story, pass on it or look a little deeper. Think of the old “Dragnet” line, “Just the facts, ma’am.” Journalists will act as the independent entities they are and do some further research. The feature they produce might unearth a skeleton or two, if any are buried — so, know your skeletons and own them!

Keeping all these factors in mind is key to making the most of a press release and getting your name out there in a positive way.

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