Yours will be one of hundreds of media releases that newsrooms get every day. Most of them end up in the bin. To give your media release every chance of being picked up by the media, you need to crystallise your main message, find an angle, structure the release in such a way that it immediately grabs attention, include all important details in plain language, and consider the timing and distribution method.
The advantages of a media release
Preparing a media release can be a lot of work and, if a number of partners are involved, can take time. But a good one has a lot of value.
- It saves time for you and the journalist. You can reach a number of media outlets at the same time.
- It makes you think about how you will explain the work in simple terms.
- It helps journalists get the details correct.
- It is a source of quotes, and may be used word-for-word by smaller papers.
- It forces you, your colleagues, your collaborators, your supervisor and your media liaison officer to think through and clarify what you want to say, to condense it, and to check that you are all saying the same thing.
- You can clear it with your organisation and collaborating organisations.
Who should write the media release?
Writing a good media release is not easy and is best done by a communication professional skilled in writing for the media. They are not as close as you are to your work, and can more easily identify what the story is and what will appeal to different media outlets.
A communication professional will also have established networks with the media and will be able to personalise the delivery and follow up of your media release.
If you can, work with a communication professional to write your media release.
Designing the main message
Think about your aims before you start:
- Why are you issuing this release?
- What are the main points you want to get across? This is particularly important for sensitive issues.
- Why should the media care?
- What do they want to know or need to know about this work? They are much less interested in the clever science than the impact the science might have on the person in the street.
- What could the media get wrong? List the most likely things they could misunderstand or get wrong unless you stress the correct information and explain any potential misunderstanding.
Finding the angle
Once you’ve designed your main message, the art of writing a good media release lies in finding the hook—the angle for your story. Usually, journalists will be interested if the work is going to affect the lives of their readers and viewers. A quirky story—for example, the greenhouse effect of methane emissions from cows—can also grab attention.
Journalists like newness, action, change, conflict, local relevance, rarity and personal stories.
To test whether your story will be of interest to the media, ask yourself the ‘so what?’ question.
The inverted pyramid
Media releases are written in the inverted pyramid style—the most important parts come first, followed by supporting information in descending order of importance.
The headline needs to be catchy. Think of it as a red flag for waving down a train. Yours will be one of hundreds of media releases that newsrooms get every day and, often, all they read is the headline and the first sentence.
Begin with an attention-grabbing ‘lead’ sentence that also covers the basic message. The entire release should be bright, direct and simple, but especially so in your first sentence.
Who, what, when, where, why and how
Journalists are trained to cover the six basic questions: who, what, when, where, why and how. You should answer all these questions in the first few sentences. For a science story, What and Why are key (not so much How).
- Who said it? Who is this about? Who will this affect?
- What happened? What does this mean for people? What is so important? This paragraph could contain a quote from your spokesperson.
- When will it happen? When did it happen? When will it be available?
- Where did it happen? Where will this be applicable?
- Why is this so important? Why is this research being done?
- How was the research done? Is there anything unusual/quirky about this? And how does this make you feel?
10 tips for telling your story
- The media likes ‘new’ - write about a new report or announce new findings.
- If the story will affect people in a certain area, the local media in that area is more likely to run the story.
- Use simple and direct language. A 12-year-old should be able to read and understand the story.
- The media likes the tangible, not the abstract - use colourful examples from everyday life.
- If possible, include costs or benefits in dollars.
- Use real people in the story. Include some direct quotes. Stories can often be told in people terms.
- If it’s a first, say so. First in Australia is good, but first in the world is better!
- If the story is about your own work, be cautious. It’s easy to assume the reader knows more about the situation than they actually do. Try the story out on someone not connected to the work, and see what interests them and what they don’t know.
- A media release should fit on a single page. Keep the paragraphs to one or two sentences and keep sentences to less than 20 words.
- Mention available photographs, photo opportunities and website details.
Include contact details for everyone who is quoted and for media assistance contacts. Wherever possible, include mobile or home contact details - the media may want to contact you outside of normal working hours. And don’t go on an overseas trip the day you issue the release. Contact persons must be just that - easily contactable.
Timing the issue of a media release
Early in the week is best as it tends to be a quiet news time. Weekends can also be good for Sunday night TV and Monday’s papers. Avoid Friday - it’s a big news day and there is too much competition.
You can place an embargo on your story - a request to the media not to use it before the stated date/time. Embargos are almost always honoured and can give journalists time to research and plan their coverage.
Distributing the media release
You can distribute media releases to established commercial media contact lists (fax and email) or you can develop your own personal contact lists.
If you are emailing the media release to journalists, include it in the body of your email as plain text and avoid document and jpeg attachments unless they have been specifically requested by the journalist.
Print journalists may request photos, and usually prefer them emailed as jpeg files with a resolution of at least 300 dpi.
Always follow up a media release with a phone call to half a dozen key journalists to make sure they received the release and know what is happening. Mid-morning is a good time to do this.
Communication professionals are the best people to help you distribute and follow up on your media release.