MEDIA RELATIONS: Deliverying the goods - What makes a press release work? PRWeek asks senior journalists to sift the good from the bad

'Good relationships with the media' is always one of those criteria

to be checked off in the box of 'worthwhile reasons to use me' when

talking about PR.

Whether it applies to an agency pitching for a lucrative piece of

business or the head of PR at a local authority trying to get a bigger

budget for his department, good media relations skills is always pretty

high up the list.

While in any PR organisation there may be a number of people who really

do enjoy excellent relations with individual members of the media and a

mere telephone call can achieve the desired result, a journalist's first

contact with the 'story' is usually via a press release. Some

journalists prefer them on paper, while others demand only e-mails.

PRWeek decided to research what a selection of senior journalists in

various sectors thought of the contents of their mailbag during a


We wanted to find out what they liked or didn't like, what irritated

them, what impressed them and what was effective and why. Talking

honestly, the editors gave their opinion. It is not all bad news.

Contrary to popular belief, journalists don't hate all PR people. Some

were harsh, but they all agreed that a bit of effort in the right places

would make their lives a lot easier, and subsequently make them more

receptive to what the PRO was trying to tell them.

Unfortunately, some of the things that they all complained about,

without exception, were the basics that any workshop on media relations

would aim to teach.

Perhaps most surprising was the amount of information or number of

releases that were sent without the PR person behind them really having

any idea about that publication or station's usual content or target


Know your audience is a PR basic but it seems that once the release or

mailout has been decided, the account executive is still sent onto

Mediadisk and told to compile the mailing list using a certain set of


But there are nuances between publications or stations that at first

glance might seem to cover the same things.

Even when the content is right, the editors were still amazed at the

number of releases that went to the wrong people. They all agreed that a

simple telephone call before sending would save a great deal of


Getting to the point early in a release is another common demand with

having to read through too many text-heavy pages being a common


And those sending by e-mail will have to perfect the art of the

one-liner - many of the editors who received e-mails admitted that they

only usually had time to look at the first line in the title and didn't

even open them.

But it's not all doom and gloom. Journalists still use releases and

really want to get a story from them if they can and want to speak to PR

people if they have something interesting to say. And they like it when

they are not made to feel like just one more person on the mailing list

- invites and freebies, for some reason, were the two things to catch

their eye.


'One of the releases I received in my postbag this week came from an

association about educating children in rural matters. It's not very

long and is written in a very positive style. We aren't using it this

week but might refer to it at a later date for something else we're

doing,' says Bridlington Free Press editor Selwyn Dunford. 'We receive a

lot of press releases and are more likely to go through them if they are

one sheet rather than five.

'Then there's jargon. I received another release about the merger of two

companies that was full of financial jargon - unless you're a financial

journal it's better to have things in plain English.

'I also don't know whether PR people do their revision on geography when

they send stuff out to local papers because people seem to think that we

are interested in everything that happens on the north-east coast.

But local newspapers are very parochial, so a little research wouldn't

go amiss for example. We received a release in the form of a reader's

letter from the actor Robson Green. It was for a national charity and

not appropriate locally.

'Councils send out well-worded and researched press releases. I received

one mid-week about the date of a beer festival being changed to avoid it

clashing with the England qualifying match. We ran that story.

'One release made me laugh for the wrong reasons. It arrived on Tuesday

- the hottest day of the year - and started with the words: "Banish

dreary winter".'


'A press release I received this week was about a photographic service

that uses images in artificial environments, which is not relevant to

me. Another from a small software company invites me to meet its senior

sales director, not even its CEO. My question is " Why?"'says The Times

telecom correspondent Clive Mathieson.

'A lot of people aren't taking the time to see what we actually cover

and it would be better if they could take time to understand a bit more

about our agenda. People send things that are quite clearly, without

wishing to sound harsh, not going to be covered by the national press,

such as deals between two small software companies. All it takes is one

call to check first.

'In terms of e-mail releases, I don't think there is much difference

between them or the paper kind. It all depends how creative you want to

get with e-mails. Usually it isn't necessary as all it does is make the

file really big. One about the appointment of new directors at a telecom

company was used by me because it was to the point and relevant to what

I write about.'

'I like it when an e-mail press release is only addressed to me and I'm

a big fan of having a click to a website. That can be useful for things

such as big reports. I was sent one recently about broadband that was

300-pages big. If it had been sent as an Acrobat file, it would have

crashed my computer, but I could access it from the website


'I definitely prefer to receive releases by e-mail because faxes can get

lost between the machine and my desk. E-mails are also easier to


'There are various things about releases that annoy me. I am sent a lot

of attachments, which clog-up my in-box, and usually delete them

straight away. Another is when attachments arrive and they are just

marked 'press release'. You then have to open them, which can take up a

lot of time, which can then be totally wasted.

'It would be helpful if the press release could give the basic points at

the top, and at least say what company it is about.'


'Among the releases that landed on my desk this week were a couple that

were totally unsuitable. One was about a service for old people and the

other for a well-known brand of tea. If the PR people who sent these

really knew Femail, they would know that we don't cover either food or

the elderly. This sort of blanket mailing out doesn't work at all' says

the Daily Mail's Femail commissioning editor Sarah Bartley.

'Releases covering areas such as health can also be quite difficult to

use. One that I received today was bad in terms of its presentation. It

is all quite scientific subject matter and is written so densely, which

is not very helpful. If it had some bullet points in it, it would be

much better. I get about 15 of this type of thing every day, which would

be much more useful if they were presented better.

'Another release was sent to the wrong person but it had a really great

logo on it which caught my eye. It was on different colour and weight

paper from everything else so it really stood out.

'A very helpful thing for journalists is for press releases to have the

name of the company on the outside of the envelope as you immediately

have some idea of what you are going to get.

'The biggest waste of time I think PR people indulge in is getting

people's job titles wrong. A lot of mail is missed because of it. They

don't seem to try to contact us first to check who it is they should be

sending stuff to.

'I get far too many e-mails and often will delete them just after the

first paragraph. I had one recently which was about a report and it had

been sent to about 50 people. The thing is we had no idea what it was or

even who the people were that had sent it, so it became junk mail.

A quick phone call from the PR person before sending it would have

helped a lot.

'The quick phonecall is the key. The worst thing PROs will do is phone

you and say "is this a good time to talk" even if you say 'no' they will

then start pitching their story anyway.

'There are releases, such as one I was sent from a water company

recently, that just don't tell you anything.

It was basically telling me how to drink a glass of water and why it is

good for you.

'I suppose it is difficult if you haven't got a great product, but the

worlds of health, food, and fashion seem to be employing very junior

people who don't know how to pitch an idea.

'You can tell when they're on the phone that they are so terrified of

rejection that they can't think laterally about the subject. So they

just prattle on regardless, like a double glazing salesman.

'This week I've had an invite to the opening of a new lifestyle


The invitation card itself looks good and invitations are always useful

as you get to network.

'Some PR people tend to forget that we are looking for a story as much

as they want to sell one, so we're not saying "no" to their ideas just

to be difficult.'

95.8 Capital FM

'Before I delve into the mailbag, I have to say the most annoying

approach from PROs is the phonecall asking, "Do you want to attend our

photocall?" I politely remind press officers we are a radio station and

so pictures are pretty useless to us,' says 95.8 Capital FM news editor

Justin Kings.

'I know of one radio news editor working in London who does not mince

his words when he gets these calls!

'But that's on the phone. Often a lot of the mail I get is not relevant

to our audiences especially the 15 to 34-year-olds.

'Today, I received a press release about a gardening product promotion

at a London flower show.

The accompanying letter, which if I wasn't doing this piece would have

gone straight in the bin, starts: "With the garden exhibition season

well and truly upon us, it's hardly surprising we're all suffering from

aching feet after hours and often days spent walking around vast

venues." Not at London's Number One Hit Music Station we're not!

'I've got a few reports in the post, without accompanying press


We're a small team here with single journalists on the desk, writing and

reading for each station. We just don't have time to go through more

than a hundred pages of a report, no matter how important or

interesting. We need to see the most important facts, ideally on one

sheet of A4.

'We cover a massive patch so the "local" competition winner or what's on

event usually ends up in the bin. For example, the car breakdown rescue

worker from Morden who's been runner up in their 'Ambassador of the

Year' competition. Well done to him but in a two-minute maximum news

bulletin mixing world, national and London stories, it just isn't going

to make news.

'PR people should try to be sensitive to our audience, to our output and

to our own resources. I'm sure my colleagues in commercial radio around

the country would agree with these points.

'Best press releases today, and there's usually only two out of about 40

I get everyday that are any use at all, are from a university in the

Midlands and London Fire and Emergency Planning.

'The University has experimented on whether cows produce more milk if

they're listening to relaxing or rocky music. A quirky "and finally"

that's appropriate to music radio but also well presented. The details

took up one side of A4 with contacts listed on a second page.

'The release from the fire service announced, on two sheets of A4, stats

on arson. By the second paragraph, I'd learnt that 62 per cent of all

fires dealt with by the brigade in a year have been started

deliberately. A story with important implications relevant to the whole

of the capital.

'Finally, freebies! They can occasionally help a product get


Today, I was sent a Barbie doll dressed as a fan of boy band N-Sync,

together with her own backstage pass, T-shirt and poster.

'At first hand, I could see it was a cute idea and it's likely to make a

line in our entertainment news later - that's if it doesn't disappear

from my desk between now and then.'


'This week I got a press release from a train company for the launch of

new rolling stock that was done really well. The PR person phoned me

before sending it. When it arrived it had his name and number at the

top, then key points and told me who was available for interview. The

release was attached as a plain word document. Then he phoned me to see

if I had got it. We used the release.' says Sky News executive producer

Simon Bucks.

'The same day I received a release from a consortium which just came as

an attachment with no indication of what it was about, which means you

have to open the attachment, which takes time.

'One of my biggest problems is that I get all of my press releases by

e-mail and, because there are so many, I sift them on the basis of what

the first line says. That first line is a new skill that PR people are

going to have to learn. If a press release is on paper journalists will

usually give it the benefit of the first paragraph at least.

'A new technique which more PR people should use is to personalise the

e-mail so it looks as though it has been sent to me alone. If you're

made to feel special then it is much more appealing and more and more

people are starting to do that. One from a regulatory body was sent to

hundreds of people and was just titled "press releases", though it's

potentially of interest.

'There is so much competition for PR people to get their stories covered

that they need to find the best way to get it through to me and that is

usually through having a personal relationship.

'Government offices always seem to send things twice and there are reams

of stuff you have to wade through. I received one from a government

department that was very dry and factual and made no attempt to angle it

to make an exciting story.

'I do ask for releases to be sent as e-mails as you can cut and paste

various bits into the news diary but the best way to do it is to phone

first and then e-mail and then phone again. It is also useful if the top

line is something that makes it easy for me to search for it when it

arrives. A good example is one I received on a technology company's

response to a regulator's ruling on a company.

The top line states exactly what the story is and I instantly know I'm


'Another from an industry body is written tantalisingly, opening with

the line "bombshell report ...". We're not running it, but I might file

it away or make a note of the organisation. Conversely, I received one

about an ongoing row between institutional investors that just has a

company name at the top. However, when you look at the content, it's a

good story.

'A lot of PR people have no idea about the requirements of TV - that

it's a visual medium and the logistics of going out, shooting, editing,


'The people who understand us always win. We always cover the big

stories and that's not usually PR people telling you about those. Good

PR people are realising that there are opportunities to piggyback on big

stories, rather than trying to get a little story covered which probably

won't make it anyway.

'We get lots of stuff from organisations wanting to react to events and

the smart ones realise that we just need a quote. Today I had a company

putting forward a guest who wanted to climb aboard a major story. Maybe

he doesn't know any more about it than other people but we'll probably

use him for the simple reason he's there.'

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in