(Originally featured in Arizona City Independent Edition, May 21, 2003)
Have you ever sent a press release announcing your club's event to a newspaper editor, only to have them print the information incorrectly--if they report on the event at all? I know it can be a disaster for your group's efforts when editors get the details wrong, but it's not always their fault. Before you complain about the editor, perhaps you should go back to your press release to see whether you reported the data clearly and correctly in the first place.
For more than a decade, I've been the conduit for many press releases that leave a lot to be desired, announcements written so badly that I wondered how much the person reporting the information actually cared about the event. If you want your club's event to be a success, you must approach the job of promoting it in a professional manner, and that means writing a professional press release.
There are two benefits from a well constructed press release: Editors will actually read them, and most of the information you send will be printed verbatim. So, if you want your message to garner attention and be understood, it's up to you to do your job well.
The first rule of writing an effective press release--and this one should be chiseled in stone--is to include the "five Ws"--who, what, when, where, why--in the first paragraph, preferably even the first sentence. Always arrange these facts in a logical order, separated by commas, semi-colons, or the occasional colon where appropriate. Let's say, for instance, that you're going to report on your club's next workshop. Here's how your first paragraph might go:
Twizzy "Freakie" Schizmore will be the keynote speaker at the 5037th meeting of the Interplanetary Extraterrestrial Mind-Bending Seminar, which will be held on Star Date 7932, at 2300 hours, in the Area 93 Spaceport, 25485 Quark Lane, Galaxy City, in the Southwest Quadrant of the Planet Saturn.
Intrigued? Hey, who wouldn't want to join a bunch of oddballs to discuss bending a few extraterrestrial minds? More importantly, good old Freakie's going to be there. Haven't seen him in a month of Jupiter Sundays. He's the best there is! The best thing about this press release is, editors will not only read this information, they'll be happy to put the most important facts in print the way you want them to be reported.
You'll notice I put the keynote speaker's name first. If one or two people are going to be the "stars" of your meeting, put their names first. That way, people will know instantly that Mrs. Eller's prize-winning Venus fly-trap will be featured at your next garden club meeting, or Angela Diablo, author of the bestselling novel, "Pigs Overhead," will discuss writer's block at your annual writer's club dinner.
Following the event title or description, put the date and time of the event, then the place, including the name of the building, if it's a public place, street address, city and state. For newcomers, you might include a cross street and/or landmark, especially if the building you're meeting in doesn't have numbers or a name prominently displayed outside.
After you've passed along the most important facts, you can get a little creative, but continue to do this in a professional way. After all, you want as much of the information as they have room for to end up in print. So it pays to follow some simple rules:
DON'T USE ALL CAPITAL LETTERS. That habit is the textual equivalent of shouting. You can capitalize individual words and phrases--as I've done with the major points of this list--such as the name of an event or a featured speaker, so they'll stand out. Otherwise, forget the caps.
FORGET THE BELLS AND WHISTLES. Just because your computer will let you decorate your text with all sorts of fancy fonts, italics, underlines, bolds, etc., don't use them indiscriminately. They add nothing to the message and might even turn off some editors. Small print and italics are really hard on an editor's eyes, especially when you consider how much they have to read in a single day. Having published newsletters in the past, I can tell you that we always returned manuscripts and press releases that made us work harder than the writers had done.
DITTO FOR EXCLAMATION POINTS. Hey, I'm guilty of this one myself! I love exclamation points! But when you overuse them, they lose their power! Nobody pays any attention to your enthusiasm when you never come down from the ceiling! Got it?!
ORGANIZE YOUR INFORMATION IN A LOGICAL MANNER. Scattering facts around a page, mixing them into the midst of a lot of rambling text, jumping from one type of information to another and back again; all that just gives the editor a headache and does nothing for the image of your group--or you as a professional. Write the announcement the way you want it to appear in a newspaper and you won't have any problem getting it printed verbatim.
EDIT YOUR FINAL COPY. Make sure you've cleaned up your spelling, punctuation, and grammar before you send out your announcement. If this is not your strong suit, have a friend who is a good editor go over your final draft. And don't assume that newspaper editors are just dying to blue pencil your work. They're too busy for that. In fact, many of them will throw away a badly written press release before they'll waste any of their precious time on it.
PRINT HARD COPIES USING BLACK INK ON WHITE OR LIGHT-COLORED PAPER. Here's another rule that translates as, "Be kind to the editor." Reading colored letters on a dark or neon background makes editors cross-eyed--before they go blind! Never, never, NEVER use ink and paper that are different shades of the same color. I can't tell you how impossible it is to try to make out medium-blue letters on a dark-blue background with these old eyes!
USE ARTWORK SPARINGLY. A club logo or a small cartoon might be okay, as long as they're not a distraction, but they don't often translate to the newspaper. More importantly, they don't add to the import of the message, so they're usually a waste.
Last, but never least, ALWAYS INCLUDE THE NAME AND TELEPHONE NUMBER OF A CONTACT PERSON, and where appropriate and possible, an e-mail address. That might be you, or it might be someone else in the group who can take calls, explain details, and relay information to appropriate parties. Be sure this person not only has the facts people need but can explain them well.
Again--and I can't repeat this often enough--the way to get your press release printed verbatim is to compose the piece in a professional manner. And, hey, I'm looking forward to seeing you and Freakie at the Extraterrestrial Mind-Bending Seminar on Saturn. Don't forget!