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Thursday, June 20, 2013

For a winning press release the proverbial 5 Ws (who, what, where, when, why) aren’t enough

Because I couldn’t quickly locate my files from when I taught Dealing with the Media at Niagara College’s Post-Graduate Public Relations Program, I am recording this blog post instead to answer a question that arose on LinkedIn yesterday and could conceivably arise again.

The context is that Deborah Corn of Print Media Centr posted information written by Marion Williams-Bennett on "Using PR to Grow Your Business--Start with a Press Release", which included the advice: 

When writing the release, you want to answer the questions – who, what, where, when and why. The most important of these questions is the why. Why should someone care about this news?

"For example, if you have acquired a new customer, your announcement can say:

"Acme Print and Marketing Services is pleased to announce that The Big Bank has chosen Acme to handle all of their print production and direct marketing communication needs.  The Big Bank is another example of Acme's expanding role as a leader in providing print and marketing to organizations in the financial services industry.

"The news is that The Big Bank has become a client; the story is that Acme is now becoming a go-to resource for the financial services industry."

My quick response to the above was:  "Caution: Besides the proverbial 5 Ws of journalism that Marion mentions (who, what, where, when & why), you also need to include how and how much? Otherwise, you risk omitting essential context that editors need in order to recognize why your release rates preferential treatment over all the others they reject."

Katherine Tattersfield, Online Marketing Director at, replied:  Victoria Gaitskell not exactly sure what you mean? Can you share a specific example? I write press releases regularly, and I'm always looking for ways to improve the copy. We're getting good results, but we can always do better.”
So here’s my expanded response, Katherine: 
To use a really quick, crude example, you might write in your release that (WHO) your company is (WHAT) holding a fundraising event (WHERE) at the Palazzo Hotel in Timbuktu (WHEN) on June 30, 2013 at 7 p.m. (WHY) to raise money to help a vulnerable group of people in your community, thus spotlighting your company as a superior corporate citizen.

But unless you add at least a few more qualifying HOW / HOW MUCH details—such as HOW you'll draw a crowd of donors with the unique and irresistible form of entertainment you’re offering at the event, or the specifics of HOW MUCH more the funds you raise will help the beneficiaries in contrast to the work of other charities, or HOW MUCH larger your fundraising target is than last year because of escalating need in your community--then how do you expect editors to figure out whether or not your news will actually be of use and interest to their readers?

Speaking personally, at least for myself and most of the other editors I know at printing trade publications, both editors and their readers have had it up to here with daily barrages of short, vague, routine, self-serving marketing spiels issued by corporate marketing departments. So while just following the 5 Ws might help you to produce a formally correct press release, it isn’t enough to help you create one that’s dynamic enough to earn you the media coverage you crave. 

Odds are that only experienced professional writers know how to cram as much information as I’m suggesting into a release that will still be interesting, newsworthy, and short enough to grab an editor’s attention--because length seriously matters as much as content, angle, and style.  (Unfortunately lack of time and space prevents me from discussing these other considerations here.)

Generally speaking, to obtain the best results, the task of writing effective press releases should probably be left to experts, because when it comes to media production, no one on either end of a press release can afford the time to futz around.

That's also why it's not just commendable but also a really practical idea to hone your press-release-writing skills as much as you can.