A news release is a brief news story that can be printed or broadcast as is, rewritten by a journalist, or used by a journalist as a starting point to gather more information for a news article or program. A research organization generally distributes a news release to the media when a newsworthy event takes place ("the news peg").
The news peg could be an external event related to an organization's area of expertise. For example, when a dead whale washed up on the beach at Waikiki in 1996, the University of Hawaii's Marine Biology Department might have issued a press release with information on whale migratory routes, mortality rates, and probably causes of death. This would have been a good opportunity to get the Department in the news. Alternatively, a research institute might distribute a news release on the occasion of an internal news event, such as the publication of new research findings, an important scientific meeting, or a statement by an important person.
A news release is written like a short newspaper article or radio news item. It should:
- Tell a story that the audience will want to read or hear. Is it about people? Does it affect people? Is it new and dramatic? Is it controversial? Does it involve or quote a well-known person?
- Start with a short, active title that contains the gist of the story.
- Follow the title with a short first paragraph that states the news and why it is significant. This format is called the "inverted pyramid," which means that the most important information comes first. Details and less important information follow. Alternatively, the first paragraph can "hook" the readers in-Posing the problem? Highlighting an individual?-and the second paragraph can state the news and its significance.
- Include all the important facts. Who? What? When? Where? and Why? Double-check facts, names, degrees, and dates to ensure the that the release is accurate. Be sure to spell out all acronyms.
- Be clear and concise (the KISS rule). A news release should be only one or two pages long, double spaced (maximum 500 words).
- Stick with the facts. Don't editorialize.
- Don't use too many numbers. Many journalists chose their profession because they hate math.
- Add interest with a direct quotation from a well-known or prestigious person. Note that a contact person is available for an interview and give full (home and office) contact information.
- End the release with a standard short description of your program.
The Media Advisory
A media advisory is a brief announcement alerting radio, television, and newspaper journalists when you or one of your staff members are available to comment on an area currently in the news. Often a media advisory is issued to invite journalists to an event such as a press conference, scientific meeting, or special lecture.
In general, follow the same format as a press release:
- Begin with a short first paragraph that states your news and why it is significant. Alternatively, the first paragraph can "hook" the readers in-Posing the problem? Highlighting an individual?-and the second paragraph can state the news and its significance. This will take the form of a biographical sketch of the person available for interview, establishing his/her area of expertise, or a description of the topic to be covered at an event.
- Give full (home and office) information on how the "interviewee" and/or your organization's media liaison officer can be contacted. For an event, give the exact date, time, and place.
- Again, keep it short and simple: one or two pages long, double spaced (maximum 500 words).
- Attach useful background material such as a biographical sketch of the interviewee, a relevant publication, or the program of a meeting.
- Have the text of a lecture or a written summary of points made at a press conference available for distribution to journalists at the event.
The Opinion Piece-Op-Ed or Letter to the Editor
If you feel strongly about an issue in the news and/or have information that the journalists appear to have overlooked, you may wish to send out an opinion or commentary piece, which could be published as an "op-ed" or letter to the editor. These are printed opposite the editorial page, hence their name. An opinion piece has a better chance of being published if it is signed by a senior, well-known person-perhaps your institute director.
The Communications Consortium Media Center has compiled these 10 tips for successful op-eds and letters to the editor:
- Try to reduce your point to a single sentence. For example: "Every child deserves a family," "The United Nations needs more funding," "Women have achieved enormous strides in the past decade."
- See if your sentence passes the "wow" test or the "hmmm" test; if not, the point needs sharpening.
- Any point worth making will have to be defended. Muster your best three or four supporting arguments and state each one in a single paragraph. Be as specific as possible. Avoid starting sentences with "There are." Use the active rather than the passive voice.
- Raise your opponents' best arguments and challenge them with countervailing facts, withering irony, condescension or whatever is appropriate, but deal with them.
- Ask yourself: What is the minimum background information a reader absolutely has to have in order to grasp this point? Write two paragraphs that summarize this information.
- Imagine your target reader browsing through the newspaper on a workday morning, rushing to find something interesting. What kind of statement might catch this person's attention? If you can raise questions, surprise, intrigue, or baffle your reader into reading beyond the first paragraph, you stand a chance that the editor will let you put the entire op-ed in the paper.
- Now, write the piece. Draft about 1,000 words (four double-spaced pages) maximum. Restate your key points in the final paragraph.
- Cut out half a page. Eliminate repetition. Trim words, not ideas. Check every word and see what you can eliminate. Convert passive-voice sentences to active ones. Give the piece to someone else and ask him/her to review it. If rewriting or cutting is required, you want to do it yourself, rather than leave it to the discretion of the newspaper editor.
- Your piece should be about 750 words. Don't forget to include your name, title, and affiliation at the end.
- Submit the piece with a short cover letter that includes your name and phone number. You will be notified if your op-ed is considered for publication. Calling and badgering the staff of the op-ed page may not help and could hurt you. Be patient, it can take weeks for a piece to appear, even for an op-ed with a time-sensitive point. Stay ready to update and revise in the hours before publication.
To prepare a submission to a newspaper or radio or television station in the standard format:
- Use standard letter-size (8½" x 11") or A4-size (21 x 30 cm) white paper.
- Use one side of the paper only.
- Identify the sender (organization) at the top of the page. Provide name, postal address, e-mail address, and telephone and fax numbers of the person who can be reached for further information, both during and after office hours. If one person is sending out the release and another person is quoted, give contact information for both.
- Specify a release date at the top of the page, e.g. "HOLD FOR RELEASE ON 14 JUNE 1996." If the information can be released right away, mark it "FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE."
- Double-space all copy. Use wide margins. Do not hyphenate words at ends of lines. Do not carry a paragraph over from one page to the next.
- Begin the first paragraph with a dateline, e.g. "EAST JAKARTA, INDONESIA, 10 JUNE 1996." The date refers to when the news takes place, not when you issue the release.
- If your release requires more than one page, type "-more-" at the bottom of each page except the last. Mark the end of a story with "-30-" or "# # #" or "end."
- If your release requires more than one page, put identification (name of your organization, "News Release," date) and the page number at the top of the second page. Staple the pages together at the top, left-hand corner.
- If your fold your release to put it in a letter-size envelope, use a fold that makes the top of the front page instantly visible when the envelope is opened.
Special considerations for radio
If you send a news release to a radio station, modify your text so that it is appropriate to be spoken, rather than read:
- Use a more informal, verbal, style.
- Do not abbreviate words.
- Double-check your copy for tongue-twisters. As a test, read your release out loud.
- If names or technical terms in your release are difficult to pronounce, give the phonetic spelling.
Special considerations for television
As with radio, news releases for television should be modified so that they can be spoken on the air. In addition, you may have the facilities to send a television station a "video news release." This should include:
- A tightly edited version of the story with a narration on one of the two audio channels and the ambient sound on the other. You should include a printout of the narration script in case the station wants to use the voice of one of its own correspondents.
- A generous selection of the same scenes that the station can edit as it sees fit. The selection of separate scenes, called B-roll footage, should be accompanied by a list of the scenes, called a shot list, which includes the time for each scene. The B-roll should also include interviews with the principals, as well as "establishing shots" of the surroundings.
The video news release should be professionally prepared and distributed on a professional-quality videotape format, usually 3/4" tape.
If you don't have the facilities to produce a video yourself, you may be able to interest a news crew in coming to your institute to cover an event or conduct an interview.
The Press Kit: What Goes Out with your News Release
News releases on technical subjects are more likely to be used if you provide journalists with supplementary materials, such as:
- Illustrations-photographs, computer graphics, charts, or drawings-that describe and clarify the subject.
- The actual research papers or reports on which the story is based.
- Background information on the work being reported, such as other articles in the field, reference material, and/or a bibliography to which the writer may refer.
- Biographies and recent photographs of the principal researcher(s) in the story.
- Information on your organization-brochure, folder, other.
More on Visuals
If you have photographs, charts, illustrations, or diagrams, include them with your news releases, even if they are not exactly right for media. The will make a good starting point for artists at the newspapers, magazines, or television stations. Surprisingly, radio reporters often like to receive visual material. The pictures help them understand the story better, and they may include some description of an important visual in their broadcast. Good photographs or graphics are often the real reason why a newspaper, magazine, or television station uses a story.
Photos of people doing things are the most effective, rather than photos of things (a new building) or of people standing in a line (conference participants). Limit the number of people in a picture to one, two, or three. Identify the subjects when the picture is taken. It is surprising how difficult it is to get the names right even a day or two later.
For each photo, type a complete and accurate caption (double-check the left-to-right identification of people) on a piece of paper and tape it to the bottom edge of the picture so that it can be read while looking at the picture. Position the tape so that it is attached to the back of the photo, rather than the front. Don't tape the caption on the back of the photograph.
Don't write on the back of a photograph because your writing can show through on the picture side. If necessary, write very lightly with a grease pencil or soft lead pencil and only in the margin.
Submit 5" x 7" or 8" x 10" (about 13 x 18 cm or 20 x 25 cm) photographs or 35 mm color slides to newspapers and magazines. For television, slides are usually better than photographs, but a professional-quality videotape is best of all.
For newspapers that print in black and white, it is best to supply black-and-white photographs since a great deal of clarity may be lost in converting from color. Most newspapers and magazines prefer photos with a glossy (rather than a matte) finish.
Sending Out Your Release
The key to successful media coverage is good personal relationships with individual journalists and their editors. The best news release in the world is useless unless it reaches the right journalist at the right time and gets picked up in the media.
Don't just mail out a news release. Chances are it will end up in the trash. And don't just telephone a journalist and try to convey all your information on the phone. Chances are he or she is working under a deadline and can't really listen to you. Rather, telephone the journalist, ask if he/she is interested in your story, and then fax, e-mail, or hand deliver your release (ask which is preferred).
If you have an opinion piece, contact the editor responsible for the op-ed page, or the op-ed section of a news show, by telephone. Give a very brief description of what you have to say, ask if the editor is interested, and-if you get a positive response-send your piece, normally by fax, e-mail, or hand delivery. If you have a good relationship with the editor and can convince him/her of the importance of your commentary, he or she may use your material in an editorial.
Find out the best time to telephone journalists-not when they have a deadline or are just getting ready to go on the air. Be prepared for them to be very rude if you telephone them at a bad time. Ask them when would be a better time and telephone later.
Target your releases to individual journalists according to their particular interests, for example a story on child health to a journalist who likes to write about children. You can find out their interests by chatting with them and by reading their articles or watching/listening to them on the air.
Journalists tend to change jobs more often that many other professionals. Keep your media list up-to-date by following which releases result in coverage, keeping in personal contact with key journalists, and surveying your list periodically via return postcards. Your "little black book" of journalists' names, interests, and up-to-date contact information is worth its weight in gold.
When you establish contact with journalists, offer to provide them with a list of your staff including their areas of expertise and full contact information. Your goal is to get yourself and your colleagues into the journalists' "little black book."
Tailor your distribution for each release. Journalists will be more likely to use your releases if they only receive material that really interests them. Your media list should be categorized to make sure that your reach just the right journalists and don't burden others with material they are unlikely to use.
Occasionally offer a good story or feature to a particular journalist on an "exclusive" basis.
A news release that is related to a specific event should reach journalists before the event takes place. Mail or fax your release well in advance or, better yet, have it delivered personally.
If you miss the event ("news peg"), don't send a release at all except possibly to magazines or other less-frequent publications that may still be interested.
If your news release or opinion piece is rejected, do not dispair. You may want to make revisions and submit an opinion piece to another publication. Or try sending out another news release in a few weeks or months on another topic. Your piece may have arrived during a very busy week with lots of competition. Often it is just a matter of your news release or opinion piece being in the right place at the right time.
If your piece is printed, make copies and send them to colleagues, elected officials, funders, reporters, and others key individuals whom you wish to reach. This is an excellent way to get your message to your target audience.