The 10 Commandments of Press Releases
In baseball, itís said that you know an umpire is top-notch when
you never notice his presence. If heís doing his job, he wonít
call attention to himself in any way. Itís much the same for the
writer of a press release. When the recipient of a release
focuses only on its content -- and not on its creation -- the
writer has succeeded. With that in mind, here's The 10
Commandments of Press Releases:
1. Thou Shalt Be Professional. No goofy fonts, rainbow paper or
silly gimmicks. Even lighthearted press releases represent a
communication between one professional and another.
2. Thou Shalt Not Be Promotional. If you canít get enough
objective distance from your company to write a press release
thatís not filled with hype and puffery, hire someone to write it
3. Thou Shalt Not Be Boring. Even the driest subject matter
allows for some sparks of creativity. Journalists like knowing
that thereís a human being communicating with them, not some
4. Thou Shalt Be Brief. Learn to cut out extraneous words. Keep
your sentences short. Include only the points necessary to sell
the story. The well-crafted one page press release is a thing of
5. Thou Shalt Know Thy Recipient. A features or lifestyle editor
is a very different creature from a city desk editor. If youíre
promoting the opening of a new winery, the food and wine editor
may be interested in all the details about what kind of aging
process and wine press youíre using. The city desk editor just
wants to know when the grand opening is and whatís going to
6. Thou Shalt Use The Proper Tense. When writing a hard news
release -- a contract signing, a stock split, a major
announcement, etc.) use the past tense (Acme Industries has
changed its name to AcmeCo, the company announced today...) When
writing a soft news release -- a trend story, a personal profile,
etc. -- use the present tense (Jane Smith is one of the best
marathon runners over 40. Sheís also blind. Thanks to new
technology from AcmeCo, Jane is able to...).
7. Thou Shalt Think Visually. A press release is more than words
-- itís a visual document that will first be assessed by how it
Iím referring to more than font size or letterhead. Iím talking
about the actual layout of the words. Whether received by mail,
fax or e-mail, a journalist -- often unconsciously -- will make
decisions about whether to read the release based on how the
release is laid out. Big blocks of text and long paragraphs are
daunting and uninviting. Short paragraphs and sentences make for
a much more visually inviting look.
When writing a non-hard news release, I often use a simple
formula -- the lead paragraph should be one or two sentences at
most. The next paragraph should be very, very short.
8. Thou Shalt Tell A Story. How to arrange the facts of a hard
news release is pretty much cut and dried. The old "who, what,
when, where and how" lead and "inverted pyramid" concepts still
hold. (Rather than engage you in a course in basic newswriting,
Iíll direct you to a really good discussion of what the inverted
Check out: http://www.poynter.org/column.asp?id=52&aid=38693
So letís focus on a soft news release. The trend story, the feel-
good company story, the "gee-whiz, I didnít know anyone was doing
that!" release. The difference between these releases and the
hard news release is simply a mirror of the difference between a
feature story in, say, the entertainment section of your
newspaper and the breaking news report on page one. The hard news
story is about cold, hard facts (A mudslide closed portions of
Interstate 70 last night, causing massive delays). A feature
article about the guy who spends all day looking at seismograph
readouts trying to predict where the next mudslide will occur
will be very different. Itís likely to be in present tense, it
wonít load all the facts upfront and it will be designed to draw
the reader deep into the text. It is, in short, all about
Hereís the formula I use for these kinds of releases. I call it
the 3S approach -- Situation/Surprise/Support.
The first paragraph sets up the situation. The second paragraph
reveals the surprise. The third paragraph supports the claim made
in the second paragraph.
One very typical 3S is discussing a common problem in the first
paragraph (For centuries, people have accepted memory loss as an
inevitable result of aging.) The "surprise" paragraph announces
the solution to the problem (But one local man says heís ready to
prove the medical establishment wrong.) The "support" paragraph
then tells the story. (John Smith, an Anytown entrepreneur, says
heís found the key to retaining a strong memory function far into
old age. His "Memory Maker" software is based on ancient Chinese
texts that were used more than 2000 years ago to...)
Another 3S -- letís revisit our mudslide watching friend. How
would you start his story using this method?
While John Smithís colleagues at the National Atmospheric Center
are watching the skies for signs of lightning and tornadoes, his
attention is focused elsewhere.
John Smith is listening to the mud.
As the Chief Mudslide Analyst at the NAC, Smith spends his days
glued to a seismograph, eyes and ears peeled for the telltale
signs on an impending slide.
Along with the 3S in action, I also followed the 7th Commandment.
That really short second paragraph is a visual grabber, and will
keep the journalist reading right into the meat of the release.
9. Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness. This may seem an obvious
point, but it always bears repeating.
Tell the truth.
Donít inflate, donít confabulate, donít exaggerate. Donít twist
facts, donít make up numbers, donít make unsubstantiated claims.
Any decent journalist will be able to see right through this. If
youíre lucky, youíre release will just get tossed out. If youíre
unlucky, youíll be exposed.
Itís a chance not at all worth taking. Make sure every release
you write is honest and on the level.
10. Thou Shalt Know Thy Limitations. Not everyone can write a
press release. A good feature release, in particular, isnít an
easy thing to craft. If you just donít feel like you have the
chops to get the job done, hire a professional.
One last tip: right before you start writing your release, spend
an hour or two reading your daily paper, paying special attention
to stories similar in feel to yours. Immerse yourself in how the
pros do it and youíll be in the right frame of mind to tackle the
job! To view professional press releases updated daily, go to:
and click on the "Press Release
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