Press Releases that Work, and Working Them

When I first started my advocacy career, doing media work essentially meant writing up a press release and then faxing it to the three local television stations, the one local newspaper (and maybe a couple of regional papers), and the public radio station. Unfortunately, while media and technology are changing rapidly, such that people are getting most of their news content from sources that didn’t even exist 10 years ago, many nonprofit advocates have not similarly altered their way of disseminating information.

The press release, as a form, is still useful. If you are soliciting coverage of an issue or an event from public or commercial news outlets, you still need a way to tell them what’s going on, why it’s important, and how they can get more information. In fact, I would argue that what made a press release good 10 years ago, when I started writing them regularly, has not changed much. What is radically, almost unrecognizably different is with whom we communicate about them, and how.

I use the Organizing for Social Change text for the Advanced Advocacy Practice course, and it includes some content on writing press releases, as do many print and online tutorials for organizers. These resources are absolutely helpful, as they give formats that make your press release readable and help you to make sure that you don’t omit any crucial information. Unfortunately, though, I think that sometimes we pay too much attention to parsing words in our press releases, and to how they appear stylistically, and not enough attention to how we put this information in the hands of those who can do something powerful with it, in a way that prompts them to want to. That’s primarily what this post is about, with a couple of different sections that are my way of trying to organize what I’ve learned about doing this kind of media advocacy. That, I guess, is the first ‘lesson’–we have to view this as advocacy. If we assume that all in the media will just naturally be enthralled by the content we have to share, then we are less likely to present it persuasively. While we can hope that news people will not be overtly hostile to our issues and messages, we should certainly consider them targets when we’re seeking coverage.

So, then, what are some considerations for the actual drafting of press releases that others might not mention?

  • Make sure that it’s about something actually newsworthy. Please don’t spend a lot of time trying to figure out the snazziest way to write a press release about something that really only matters to you. You don’t get any bonus points for sending out lots of releases; the point is to get coverage. If your issue and the hook you’ve given it are exciting enough, your release will practically write itself.
    NOTE: If it’s really considered significant, you can get good coverage even with a subpar release–the one (linked below) that I wrote in March 2007, is way too long (that’s what happens when you’re writing by committee, with lots of stakeholders to please), but we still had 3 television stations, 4 newspapers, 2 radio stations, and 1 blogger at the press release to provide coverage.

  • Think about the purpose of your release; what ‘kind’ of coverage are you hoping for? If you just want to be mentioned, then you might include enough detail so that someone can run with it with very little investment on their part (including quotes from key actors). If, however, you’re hoping to lure people to come to an event, then you won’t want them to be able to write their story from the release alone.
  • Control the pacing–if you want to send a release out in advance of an event but don’t want the coverage to happen until a certain time, embargo your release until the date when you’re ready.
  • If you can include something eye-catching or surprising or in other ways attention-grabbing, that’s an advantage. What I do like about the Bill Introduction Press Release below is that we included some voices that media didn’t necessarily expect to see; my hunch that this was a part of their attraction was confirmed by the extent to which those perspectives were the ones reflected in the coverage!

    And to whom should we send our press releases, and how?

  • Don’t neglect any of the traditional sources, but remember that they are more overworked and understaffed than ever before, which makes it all the more critical that you have a specific contact to whom you’re sending the release. Take the time to call in advance and get a name.
  • More media folks are requesting electronic press releases; they can access these from their smart phones or other mobile devices, often, and they can more easily take key facts from the release to include in their pitch or story. You can email the release out, then, but don’t send it as an attachment, because it may be rejected by security software.
  • In addition to these traditional sources, cultivate contacts among and send your release to ethnic media (including radio, television, and print) (making sure to provide language-appropriate documents where necessary), Internet media sites relevant to your topic, and bloggers with an interest in your issue. People get their news from all of these places now, and we have to reach out to them as well.
  • Don’t forget wire services and media outlets a bit removed from your immediate geographic area; since more people are getting their media (even from traditional sources) online, there has been some expansion of territory covered, and you might find some interest in a bit larger area.
  • Be a media consumer–if you expect to create releases that will appeal to media outlets without having any sense of how they use content, you will likely be disappointed. At the least, you’ll probably misread some outlets, sending to some who couldn’t care less, and missing some that might give you good coverage. My husband taught me a lesson on this once–he often listens to an alternative music radio station in Kansas City, and he told me in advance of one rally that the DJ had made a couple of supportive comments about immigrants the other day. I called the station to get the producer’s name, sent over a release, and the DJ came with an assistant and a producer to one of our rallies for a live broadcast! They interviewed several of the immigrant participants, hilariously mocked the counter-protestors, and gave people directions for how to come down to show their support. It was an audience that we never would have reached without the intelligence that there might be some receptivity.

    And what do we do after a release has been distributed, to try to increase our exposure?

  • Probably one of the biggest mistakes that I see nonprofit advocates make in early media work is assuming that sending the release out constitutes the extent of your outreach. Remember, in advocacy, you want as few surprises as possible, so you should follow up with everyone to whom you sent a release, by telephone if at all possible (that’s why you guard good media contact’s cell phone numbers closely!)–make sure that they received the release, see what questions they have, talk to them a little about the event or issue if they seem at all receptive, and then ask them directly if there will be coverage. You’ll be surprised at what these calls might yield–I’ve gotten offers to do guest editorials, on-air call-in shows, and even remote broadcasts. Advocacy always requires closing the loop, and media advocacy is no different in this respect.
  • Ask for and save contact information from every media representative who gives you any good coverage. Connect with them directly the next time you have a release to send out. At policy events, have someone dedicated to working the media–looking for representatives when they arrive, providing them with information, answering questions.
  • Don’t disparage the media broadly. I have worked with colleagues who make comments (in front of media representatives) like, “people just oppose our issue because of all the they read in the media,” who are then baffled when they don’t receive favorable responses to their requests for coverage. Remember that the media are your advocacy targets here (see above), and uniformly insulting them is not a good approach.

    If you have press releases that you’d like to share, please link to them in the comments. If you have had success in getting good media coverage, please share what worked. If you’ve been frustrated by poor response, I’d love to brainstorm with you about how you can increase your appeal. Media coverage should never be confused with the real goal of an advocacy campaign–policy change–but it can be a very important tool to aid in that pursuit. The smarter we get about how to get our message out to our targets through strategic media advocacy, the more we’ll be able to control the message and, therefore, the debate.

    Materials:
    Bill Introduction Press Release March 2007

    Garden City Forum Press Release April 2007

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