This guide can be downloaded here.
Bad publicity is one of the most powerful tools in the campaign armoury, particularly where the campaign is getting the backing of residents. Although this guide specifically addresses press releases, many of its elements are helpful when thinking about all forms of communication, whether newsletters for supporters, letters to decision-makers, or statements to get the attention of national media; getting a clear message to the right people is an essential component of a successful strategy.
Tips for Effective Press Releases
1. Where’s the News?
To get press attention, the story needs to provide something that is considered ‘newsworthy’, which means that it can’t be ‘old news’ or just a general complaint. It should report something specific, for example an announcement by your association to increase vastly increase service charges despite increased reserves. Think about the story that you want to convey and why it might interest others.
2. How can you grab the journalist’s attention?
Without being too obscure, one of the best ways to grab a journalist’s attention is with a quirky but informative headline. It should be as short as possible, but still give the journalist enough information to know what the story is about. Your headline is for the journalist; they will write their own headline for the story they publish.
3. Who are you speaking to?
Every media publication has a target readership in mind. A press release intended for broadsheets like The Guardian would need a different slant to a press release for an industry-specific magazine such as Inside Housing, even if it is the same story. for example tabloids are more likely to be interested in ‘human interest’ stories (focusing on an individual’s personal experience), whereas industry magazines will be more interested in stories which illustrate governance, management and trends within the sector. To help you write your press release, it is useful to read a few of the target publication’s articles. It will allow you to pick up on their areas of interest.
4. Write a press release not an advert!
One common mistake is to write a press release as if it were a story for your own website or social media. For example, “We are inviting all residents of The Housing Association to protest outside the organisation’s board meeting over the recent service charge hikes of 70%” is fine for your own website, but not for a press release. Instead, it needs to be written in the third person (“The Residents Association has organised a protest outside The Housing Association’s forthcoming board meeting to lobby against service charge rises of 70%”).
5. What does your journalist need to know?
Looking at a press release from the perspective of a busy journalist or editor, it’s clear that they will not want to spend a lot of time digging through your text to find the key information for their article. It is imperative therefore that once you have identified a newsworthy story, the crucial information is summarised right in the opening paragraph. If the story is about a forthcoming protest event for example, the journalist will need to know what the protest is against or for, when and where it is taking place, and who is organising it. The contextual information, quotes and a very brief background can then follow.
A golden rule is to get someone to read it who has no connection with the campaign. Ask if they found it easy to understand, and whether it gave them all the information they needed. Also having someone proof read the text for basic typo and grammatical errors is helpful.
The campaign’s contact details are always at the end, and should name a lead organiser who can speak to the journalist. The footnote can also include background notes, generally a description of the campaign group, how it was set up, and what its aims are. Finally, if the press release is about an activity that has already taken place, you can include a photo or two to pique the journalist’s interest and provide them with material.
6. Include a decent quote
Far too often quotes are included because they are from an important person, rather than adding to the story itself. A quote is best when it is someone affected directly by the issue, and should add both authenticity and human interest to the story. Having a look at some of the stories carried by the publication you are targeting will help give you a feel for the type of quote they like, and also the kind of thing that adds positively to your experience as a reader. This can then guide your own selection of a quote.
7. Include Local Politicians
Local papers will often include stories involving the area’s locally elected representatives. If you are holding a stall or demonstration which your MP or councillor will attend, then say so in the story and try to get a good quote from them.
8. Keep it snappy!
The standard length of a press release is a single A4 page. It may be necessary to do something longer, but this is rarely the case. If a journalist wants a lot of background material, they will get in touch, so the trick is to find the right balance of essential information, a bit of context, a good quote and then your contact details.
A press campaign involves more than just writing the press release itself. Campaigners will need to identify and contact target journalists, and will need to be persistent in getting their story into print.
Five tips on circulation are:
- Getting a story in a high profile, national paper is excellent publicity for your cause, but is extremely difficult to achieve. Often however campaigns are of special interest to a particular community. This could be residents in a local area, or defined by a shared attribute, for example housing association leaseholders. Often there are specialist publications in print or online that will help you get to your target, so it is worth searching out either local press or specialist media.
- Whatever your target journalists are, try to find named contact details rather than sending press releases into a generic “editor@ ….” or “news@…” email address.
- Using networking sites like Twitter and LinkedIn can be very useful for tracking down particular journalists, or finding the producers of television programmes.
- Follow up your press release by contacting the journalists by phone. A telephone conversation provides a second crack at getting the journalist to run with your story, so investing time and effort in this is well worth it.
- Finally, given that you may need to nudge a few journalists after sending out the press release, it is imperative that you give yourself as much time as possible between issuing a press release and the target publication’s deadline.