Every day, newsrooms around the country are inundated with press releases – and legal media organizations are no exception. During my many years as an editor and reporter covering the law, I spent a good deal of time sifting through the dozens of press releases that clogged my inbox on a daily basis.
The verdict was rarely positive: Most of what I and my colleagues received was pure dreck that we would never – repeat, never – cover. If your PR strategy is to spam the world every time someone in your company or law firm sneezes, please stop. Now. It’s doing you and your reputation no good. If you send out boring milquetoast that tells a reporter or editor next to nothing, don’t expect an excited response from them. And you’re in for rough weather if you don’t understand the basics – knowing that even a well-written, timely release may not fit a publication’s needs. You must set your expectations — and those of your firm’s partners or company’s executives — accordingly.
What follows are a few thoughts about how marketing and public relations professionals can offer journalists press releases that will be useful and that may trigger coverage. Some of these items may seem rudimentary – but you’d be surprised at how often releases fail to meet even the most basic requirements.
1. Is it news?
If coverage is your goal, you must ask a fundamental question: Why is this news? If you can answer that question clearly and coherently, then please proceed. Press the pause button, however, if you can’t image yourself reading the story you’ve described in your release on a news site, or if you’re writing the release simply to assuage the egos of stakeholders at your firm or company. A press release won’t gain much traction if you’re trying to make a partner happy — and not thinking about how the release will be received by its intended audience.
2. Get to the point
Deadlines are real, and reporters and editors are under the gun. You can help them by constructing concise press releases in plain English. Make your point in the first paragraph, just like a news story. (Remember the inverted pyramid? It’s a simple story form that’s survived since the 19th century for one key reason: It works.) Be sure the release answers the fundamental questions of a news story: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? Try not to muck up the release with too much legalese or too many superlatives. And provide relevant links, contact numbers, and offer up potential sources for interviews.
3. Check your facts
Most reporters and editors don’t love press releases. They would rather find a story on their own. But if they are using a press release, they want it to be clear and error-free – something they can rely upon to help bolster an article. You must ensure that the release is bullet proof. Check any assertions that you’re making about the business, any name spellings, or case cites. If you must, print out the release, highlight every fact, and then check each one. It’s worth the extra step: Nothing damages your credibility as a source as quickly as sending a reporter an error-filled release.
4. Look for an angle – but don’t push it
It’s your job to sell the story to reporters and editors. A strong headline on your release will help. So will a smart angle: If you can prove that your enterprise is the first to do something, or if you can identify a trend, the release may be more appealing. If you do have a clever angle, be sure to clearly present supporting data that will help reporters and editors verify your claims. And don’t go overboard. A straightforward release is far better than one that stretches too far to dazzle a journalist. If you can’t back up a claim, or if you’re reaching for a trend, your release likely won’t be picked up, and you could damage your credibility.
5. Do your homework
Know the publication before you send it a release. If the news organization focuses on regulatory developments in Washington, don’t send it a release about, say, the election of a partner in the Nashville office to a local bar committee. It’s frustrating as an editor or reporter to get a release from a firm or company that hasn’t bothered to check out your web site, or that doesn’t have a grasp on the audience your publication serves. Tailoring your pitch to the publication (or site or blog) and its audience can be the most effective way to grab a writer’s attention.
6. Sometimes a simple email works best
You can take tailoring a message a step farther by crafting a short email and sending it to a reporter or editor, giving them a basic rundown of the story and why you think it could work for the publication. The full press release can be attached to the email. This works best if you’ve established a relationship with members of the news organization, and you’ve proven that you are a credible source. Given the volume of email that newsrooms receive, a targeted approach can sometimes help you break through the noise.
7. What worked previously, may not work again
Last year, you sent a legal news publication a release about your firm being named to a magazine’s list of the best places to work. The publication used it, and wrote a trend piece focused on your firm and a few others that had established progressive policies to help attract and retain employees. This year, your firm was again listed as a best place to work, and you dutifully sent out a release. The response? Crickets. Sometimes a release only works once. Just because a news organization wrote about something before, does not mean it will write about it again. In fact, it’s a great reason not to write about something. (The words “we’ve already covered that” are generally fatal for a story). To get over that hump, you’ll need to pitch a fresh angle that significantly advances the story – without stretching the point too far (see no. 4 above).
8. You will be rejected. Deal with it
Don’t expect every press release to receive a response. Once you tap a release into a reporter’s or editor’s court, it’s their ball. If they want to play it, they will. They aren’t your publicists, so don’t expect them to behave in a way that is beneficial to your company or firm. By the way: Calling an editor or reporter and nagging them about whether they’ve received the release may seem like a good idea. It rarely is. I’ve heard the nicest, calmest editors lose their cool with PR and marketing folks who call them on deadline to ask whether they’ve received a release.
A strong press release can be a valuable tool for a reporter or editor. It can make their lives easier – and in return, your firm or company receives coverage that may help burnish its brand.
Updated and republished March 16, 2018.