Making Bricks Without Straw – Writing a Press Release When There Is No Story

You are probably familiar with the story from Exodus about Pharaoh punishing the Jews by forcing them to make bricks without straw, a difficult if not impossible task. Sometimes I feel I get the same instructions from my clients. The phone rings or you get e-mail from a client with very exciting news that they can’t wait to turn into a news announcement. And when you dig down to gather the facts, you find there is no real news and no legitimate news hook. Of course, your client is not a media expert; it’s your job to educate your client about the ins and outs of reporting and what the press consider newsworthy. But sometimes it’s just hard to tell your client that their news release subject stinks.

That’s when the real creativity kicks in. Sometimes you have to find a way to uncover or even create the news hook, even when there doesn’t seem to be one. I find these kinds of “non-news” release the absolute hardest to write, but I also understand their value. These days you often want to use a press release to tell a story designed to reach an audience other than the press. You may want to reach prospects, or customers, or employees, or the board of directors, or simply put something out on the wire to attract web traffic and pump up your keyword or SEO strategy (remember that press releases almost always rank higher with search engines). And even though this may seem to be a bastardization of the press release format, a news release is often the best format to instill some urgency and legitimacy into a story that really doesn’t have much news value.

So how do you approach this problem (other than with fire tongs)? Well, you use the same steps as you would with any news announcement, but with a few nuances:

  1. Reverse engineer the story – The best place to start is with the desired outcome. Think about how you would want the final story to read? What’s the big idea you want readers to take away with them? What’s your headline? Once you grasp the main theme it will be easy to build a story around it.
  2. Suspend your news judgment – Remember that this kind of announcement is for general readership and not necessary for the press. That means you can bend the rules a little, especially in the use of adjectives, superlatives, and elements you might not include in most news announcements. Your objective here is to imbue enthusiasm as much as to impart information.
  3. Research helps – You often can shore up a poor press release topic with facts, facts, and more facts. Do some digging and find research and numbers that will legitimize your release. If someone has statistics, the topic must be important.
  4. Practice good journalistic style – Just because you may think the release has little or no news value doesn’t mean you should be sloppy. Use good journalistic techniques. Open with a lead and use the inverted pyramid to build your story. Follow AP style. It all helps to lend credence to the tale you have to tell.
  5. Review, revise, and optimize – The best writing is about rewriting, and when you have a tough assignment writing a non-news release, it’s even more important to review your work for style and tone, as well as errors. Also optimize your press release for SEO, Twitter, Facebook, and other uses. This kind of press release is usually written to help build awareness, and that means building in key search terms and phrase to promote SEO.
  6. Distribute appropriately – Don’t undermine your own credibility by trying to sell a bad news story to the media. Instead, use alternate distribution strategies to promote online presence and support Web search. Use the paid wire services and post it to the free news sites that will accept it. But don’t make the mistake of trying to pass it off as legitimate news.

The rules of public relations are changing with the Internet, and how we use the tools of the trade has to evolve as well. The press release is still an incredibly valuable tool when it comes to getting hard news to journalists looking for information they can print or post. It also can be a useful tool to build a market presence. The most important thing to remember is who is your target audience and what format and information will best meet their information needs.

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