News release – test your knowledge

OK, so a quick caveat – the following is based on experience of using the media as activists. We’re not professional journalists (though we’ve taken the time to talk to a few). The answers are below. No fancy technology, just scroll down…..

On your marks, go!

The Questions

  1. Name at least 3 things it’s worth knowing about any news outlet in advance of sending them your press release
  2. How many key messages in a good news release? 
  3. How long should your news release be (in terms of sides of paper)? 
  4. How far should a journalist have to read before they understand what the story is about? 
  5. How many words in a good news release headline? 
  6. What should you say in the first paragraph?
  7. Name all the people in a newspaper who you might want to send your news release to? 
  8. What key qualities will help to get your story covered?
  9. After you’ve sent the release, how would you follow-up with your chosen media outlets?

The Answers

  1. their deadline for both pictures and copy (these are often different), how to contact them, their editorial policies/stance (after all no point wasting your time if their hostile to your cause), what’s current with them
  2. People often say 3 key messages. I’d say up to 3. 1 is great if you can manage it
  3. 1 side of A4 or less is the ideal. It’s probably OK for the main body of the news release to be on one side and any notes to the editor to run onto another (that’s things like the location of your event, the history of your campaign – stuff that’s useful for the journalist but isn’t essential to the story). It’s also worth thinking about email – can you fit enough of the main body of the text into the average size email window to hook the journalist in?
  4. The headline of your news release. Don’t forget your headline is to grab their attention and get them to read on. You’re not writing the headline that a newspaper or blogger will use. Let them do that themselves to suit their own style and audience.
  5. A few years ago I’d have said up to 8. With the rise of email, now you need to take into account how many word are visible in an email subject line, remembering that you probably need to start the subject with the words “NEWS RELEASE:”
  6. Essentially a summary of the whole story often referred to as the 5W’s: Who, What, When, Where, Why – who’s taking action, what are they doing, where is it happening and when, and why (that’s your key messages)
  7. Any relevant journalists you have a personal relationship with, news editor, news desk, picture editor, picture desk, relevant correspondence (environment, economics, politics etc)
  8. Currency – its news value, relevance to their readers/viewers/listeners, interest – stands out from the norm
  9. Get on the phone, check the right people have got the release, that they understand it and have a chance to clarify any points and ask questions. Resend it if necessary. Be polite and outgoing, sell your story. And do this in order of priority – ring the most important news outlet first. Not sure which is most important? Ask yourself who can get your message to the people you most want to hear it more effectively than anyone else. 

Feel free to help us refine this quiz, by sharing your knowledge and experience!

There’s a couple of other ‘top tips’ that I sometimes share in media workshops when we’re discussing following up after sending a news release. They’re pretty obvious when you think about it, but people still seem to find them useful:

  1. Prioritise! I mentioned it above,  but it stands saying again – call the people who can deliver the most impact first and leave the rest until later. Remember that it’s not always obvious – some regional papers have a higher circulation than nationals, for example, so if it’s  numbers you want…. And don’t forget things like the trade press which may be a better way of getting your message direct to key people in corporations, industry, or government
  2. If your phone number is on the bottom fo the press release as the contact number use a second phone to call round news outlets and leave that phone entirely free for incoming calls. Busy journalists will only tolerate the engaged signal so many times before they move on to another story
  3. Update your list of media outlets as you ring round – there can be a high turnover of journalists as people move to different outlets or to different roles within their existing paper, or station. If you call to speak to Jo Bloggs, environment correspondent and are told they’re no longer in the job, find out where they went, and find out who replaced them and how best to contact the replacement. I learnt from bitter experience that my memory isn’t as good as I like to think, and my hastily scribbled notes aren’t as legible as they should be. So make neat corrections as you go. It takes a few seconds and saves loads of time later!

And finally don’t forget social media press releases to get your key messages into the blogosphere and beyond.

Panels, participation and press releases – Rhizome at the Rebellious Media Conference

Both Carl and I were busy at the Rebellious Media Conference last weekend. We facilitated the 2 participant-led sessions –  a short Open Space on ‘Activism and the Media on Saturday, and the “Have Your Say” session on Sunday. Neither were heavily attended, but that’s hardly surprising given the weight of other things in the programme. And there was plenty of ‘open space’ happening without the need for facilitation over tea and coffee. However, it felt important to offer the space in a conference with more than its fair share of panel debates, experts and big name speakers.

I was also facilitating a couple of short workshops on engaging  the mainstream media (which felt a little out-of-place at the Rebellious media conference). The first was on writing effective press releases, including a short section on engaging the media strategically to ensure that we use them and don’t let them use us. Given it started at 9.30 on a Sunday morning, I was gratified to find the room full. It was a lively session which, if the evaluations are anything to go by, people found useful:

“Excellent communicator…. practical exercises were very useful and I learnt good skills”

“Fantastic session”

There was however a request for “more time for the practical exercise” which is a very fair point – we were a little behind schedule by the time we got to the final press release writing activity, for example.

I like to think that the workshop draws heavily on the experience of the folk in the room. One way I sometimes draw that out is through a simple ‘press release quiz’. Sharing the answers brings out the full spectrum of knowledge in the room. I thought I’d type it out and upload it, so go test your knowledge of writing effective press releases!

The second was on giving interviews. Many people come to a session of this kind thinking that they have no experience of interviews. In practice we’re all experts in what works and what doesn’t in TV and radio interviews. We consume so many of them through our TVs and radios, that even if we’ve never given one the groundwork is there. It’s simply a matter of distilling those lessons and applying them. This workshop was a space for people to do just that – help each other to prepare an interview, give it a go and get some supportive feedback. Again the feedback was overwhelmingly positive, but then people always appreciate a supportive space to practice.

For those who couldn’t make it but want to be involved, there’s an interactive website where the conversation and organising is still happening