Public relations professionals at all levels need to have solid writing skills. PR practitioners are responsible for developing communication materials intended to influence the attitudes and/or behaviours of target audiences (and without receiving push back from non-target audiences). Many employers require candidates for public relations positions to complete a writing test and provide a writing sample or entire portfolio to demonstrate proficiency in this skill. Understanding how to craft effective messages through written communication is critical to success in PR.
Here are some of the many materials and messages that public relations professionals have to write:
- Press/news releases
- Fact sheets
- Feature articles
- Social media messages
- Blog posts
- PowerPoint presentations
- Media pitches
- website messages
Effective public relations writing draws from news writing principles because the news media is one of the preferred channels for communicating messages to target audiences. However, news writing and public relations writing differ in terms of audience, tone, and media channels. News writing should be objective in tone, with the purpose of presenting information to educate an audience about newsworthy events. On the other hand, public relations writing advocates for the client. It is informative, but it should also influence key publics’ perception of the organization. Some would also argue that public relations writing is even more concise than news writing.
Reporters usually write for one audience: readers or listeners of the respective media outlet. Public relations professionals may have to write for a variety of audiences, including internal audiences (such as employees) and external audiences (such as the media, customers, and regulators). News writing uses one primary communication channel: news outlets (which can be a newspaper or a television or radio broadcast). Although journalists are increasingly using Twitter to post their articles, this usually entails posting a link that directs the audience to the news outlet’s primary website. Public relations professionals use a variety of channels to distribute their messages, including news media, social media, advertisements, blogs, press kits, and more.
This blog post further explains some of the differences between news writing and public relations writing.
Formerly known as a “press release” and frequently called a “media release,” the news release is one of the most common types of communication collateral written by public relations professionals. News releases are sent to outlets such as newspapers, television and/or radio stations, and magazines to deliver a strategic message that the media ideally will publish or broadcast. The primary audience for the news release is reporters and editors, although some organizations publish news releases on their own websites for primary audiences to view, as well. This may be done due to shrinking newsroom staffs and insufficient resources to develop original content. (NB: the term “press release” is out of date because so much of the mainstream media is video, audio, or digital, and not produced by a “press” at all.)
Journalists use news releases as a reporting tool, relying on them to provide essential information from opinion leaders, especially quotes and key facts. Although the emergence of digital media has challenged public relations professionals to think of nontraditional ways to garner publicity, the use of news releases is still widespread in the profession. Therefore, public relations practitioners should know how to write an effective news release.
Traditionally, news releases use the inverted pyramid style, which is easy for journalists and editors to process. This means the news hook should be revealed in the headline and lead of the release. Journalists will not take your news release seriously if the content is not newsworthy and it is not written in an accepted style, such as AP (Associated Press) style in the United States or CP (Canadian Press) style in Canada. Make sure that the news release contains attributed information with proper sources and is error free.
Before writing the release, ask yourself the following questions:
- Is the announcement or event newsworthy? Does it appeal to the media outlet’s audience? Some announcements do not warrant a press release and can simply be posted on the company website.
- What is the key message? What should the reader take away?
- Who is the target audience for the release? Although you’re writing the release for the media, you need to keep in mind the type of readers or listeners you hope to attract.
The release should be written on the letterhead, with the words “News Release” or “Media Release” at the top left corner of the page. Below this, indicate when the information is available for publication. The term “immediate release” means the information is ready to publish and can be used by journalists as soon as they receive it. Occasionally, you might want more time to gather other information, or would prefer that the journalist publish the announcement at a later date, often immediately after a live announcement or news conference. In this case, use the words “under embargo until” followed by the embargo date, which is when you will allow the journalist to publish the information. Put the news release date below the “immediate release” or “under embargo until” statement. Always include contact information for the journalist’s reference, usually at the bottom of the page.
Write the body of the news release using news writing techniques and style. Be sure to include a headline; you also may include a subheadline. Provide a dateline, followed by the summary lead.
When writing the body, the first paragraph explains the issue and, as concisely as possible, its significance. After that, information is provided in descending order, with the most significant information first. Facts, figures, statistics, and other such information is provided in regular paragraphs. Explanations of human interest, emotion, or interpretation should be provided through quotes. These quotes should help audiences connect the factual information with its greater significance and emotional relevance.
This website provides a valuable point-by-point breakdown of how news release should be constructed.
The formatting varies slightly from this from template to template. For example, in Canada, the text “-30-” usually shows the end of text in a news release and lands above the contact information, whereas this example has “###” at the end and after the contact information. Also, in some places, the date and location are listed at the beginning of the first paragraph, rather than above it.
Be sure to use the inverted pyramid to organize the information throughout the news release. Include at least two quotes, one from the sending organization and another from a third party (example: customer, volunteer, or other stakeholder). After the body is finished, many organizations add a boilerplate, which is identical across all news releases and is included in all of them; the boilerplate provides information about the company or organization, similar to the “About Us” section that one might find on a company website.
Examples of news releases (which are admittedly changing in style with an increasingly digital-first delivery) can be found on the websites of most major or even minor organizations, including your local college or university.
Media kits (or press kits) are packages or website pages that contain promotional materials and resources for editors and reporters. The purpose is to provide detailed information about a company in one location. Although a media kit delivers more information than a news release, the overall goal is similar: to secure publicity for a organization or client.
Major events or stories that require more information than is typically included in a news release warrant a media kit. Examples include a company merger, the launch of a new product, a rebranding campaign, or a major change in organizational leadership. Media kits can be hard copy or digital, though digital is now widely preferred. Hard-copy press kits use folders with the company logo, whereas digital media kits use a website page or are sent in a zip file via email.
The following materials are found in a media kit:
- News release
- Fact sheet
- Publicity photos or list of photo opportunities
- Video clips
- Media advisories
Click here for information on how to assemble a media kit.
A backgrounder contains the history of a company or issue and/or biographies of key executives. The purpose is to supplement the news release and explain the company’s story, issue, event, products, services, and/or milestones. It is in paragraph format and relatively brief (one to two pages). Click here for a sample corporate backgrounder from GainSpan, a semiconductor company.
A fact sheet provides a summary of an event, product, service, or person by focusing only on essential information or key characteristics. It is more concise than a backgrounder and serves as a quick reference for reporters. However, the fact sheet is not meant for publication. The headings of a fact sheet vary; the creator of the document chooses how to categorize major information. The most common type of fact sheet is the organizational profile, which gives basic information about an organization. This includes descriptions of products or services, annual revenues, markets served, and number of employees, for example.
The standard fact sheet contains company letterhead and contact information. The body is single-spaced, with an extra space between paragraphs and subheadings. Although the fact sheet is typically one page, put the word “-more-” at the bottom of the first page to indicate additional pages (if needed). Similar to the news release format, include “-30-” at the bottom of the document to indicate the end. Group similar information together and include bulleted items if appropriate.
Click here for one example of a fact sheet and here for another. Keep in mind that the subheadings/categories used in this example may not be used in another one. Writers have some flexibility in the categories they choose in a fact sheet.
There are times when announcements do not require the distribution of a news release, but rather a concise notice to the media. This is called a media advisory or media alert. Media advisories are essentially short memos to reporters about an interview opportunity, news conference, or upcoming event. They very briefly explain who, what, where, when, why (and sometimes how), inviting the media to attend, often to take photographs, ask questions, or capture video interviews.
This chapter was adapted from Writing for Strategic Communication Industries by Jasmine Roberts is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.