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Press Release Writing Tips From the New York Times

It's not everyday that our friends at the New York Times offer press release writing tips, but they did so today in a story headlined, "Need Press? Repeat: 'Green,' 'Sex,' 'Cancer,' 'Secret,' 'Fat'"
The Times took as a starting point a press release about the alleged toxicity of shower curtains to explain how PR agents lard their press releases with eye-catching words such as "green" and "cancer" and "toxic."

As the Times notes:

Those who make their living composing news releases say there is an art to this easily dismissed craft. Strategic word selection can catapult an announcement about a study, a product or a "breakthrough" onto the evening news instead of to its usual destination -- the spam folder or circular file.
Well, duh.

This is another darn-good example of the chasm that exists between journalists and PR. As a group, journalists seem to think that media stories are chosen based on their inherent merits, and that pitching, spin and prior relationships have nothing to do with it. PR people know better, and spend much of their time trying to game the system so that their [usually little] piece of news gets an out-sized amount of media coverage.

Now don't go jumping to the conclusion that all you need to do is add sexy words to make even the dullest release into a big news splash. It takes more than that. In the case of the toxic shower curtains, the release included references to a research study, a press conference at a high-profile New York hospital, and most importantly, it was about an everyday consumer product.

But the story does, unwittingly, point to a truism of media relations: that the competition for scarce media attention is fierce, so you can't just drop your press release into the stream and expect it to get picked up. Instead, you've got to include as many attention-grabbers as possible [ideally, without going overboard].

In addition to emotionally charged words, other attention grabbers include:

  • Exclusivity
  • Interesting photos and graphics
  • Behind-the-scenes access
  • Access to hard-to-reach business executives
  • Compelling research data
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