Bridget Doyle, Midwest ELGL co-founder and Lombard (IL) communications coordinator, presents another edition of Communication Breakdown. Why should you listen to Bridget? Bridget speaks from experience. She interacted with local governments during her time as a Chicago Tribune reporter and knows how local governments can improve their messaging with the media.
Communication Breakdown: Amp up your press release
Communicating news from your government organization is crucial, especially if you’re hoping to share this information with a large swath of your community’s population. But how to craft that message to get the largest reach?
Press releases aren’t dead, but how we send them and what they should contain has evolved. News organizations still rely on receiving information from organizations to keep them abreast of what’s going on in the community. However, local governments should be writing smarter press releases to better serve journalists, and in turn, the citizens of their community. Here are some key tips on sending information to the media:
Write in an inverted pyramid. The inverted pyramid is a term used by journalists to describe how information is prioritized or structured. While press releases aren’t news stories, journalists have less and less time to sift through our releases to find the important information. Try to write press releases so the most newsworthy and important information is highlighted or introduced in the first paragraph, and then go down from there in terms of importance. This ensures that the editor or reporter will see what you’re trying to communicate, even if they’re just reading the headline or first paragraph of your release only.
Differentiate between Press Releases, Media Advisories and Event Listing. There may be information you want to send to the press – but not everything you want to send is a press release. Reserve the title “press release” for important or official messages. Use titles like media advisory (notifying of press conference or newsworthy event), news briefs and event listings also to help identify what exactly you’re communicating. By labeling each document or email, you’ll help the journalists figure out their level of interest in what you’re sending. Maybe a newspaper needs to fill event listings while a TV station needs a story to fill a void in their daily coverage. They will appreciate your clarity.
Avoid jargon, include detail. Remember that you are essentially writing this press release for a citizen. There is likely certain jargon used within your department to describe various projects or events, but try to avoid this. Make sure to spell-out acronyms on the first reference. Never leave out important information or dumb-down the topic, but write as if you’re explaining it to your friend over dinner. Imagine the person receiving the news hasn’t the slightest clue what goes on within your Village or City. Always include relevant information such as the time, date, place, titles of any employees mentioned, etc. As a bonus, if you can include good description, quotations and personal details, you’ll have a better shot of piquing interest. Be sure not to get too crazy with prettifying your work though – you’re not writing poetry.
Always include a real contact person. Unless a media outlet is posting your story verbatim as a “community post,” a reporter will need to re-write your press release. The reporter will undoubtedly have further questions or want to get quotes from someone mentioned in the release – or the Mayor. For those local governments without a designated Communications person, be sure to list someone as a contact on the release who will see through the reporter’s requests. If a reporter calls a number and it’s the main Village or City number, they’ll get frustrated and potentially move on to other story ideas. Make it easier by giving them a direct and helpful contact.
With breaking news, skip the press release and send updates now. Press releases are an official document sent from your government to the public. In breaking news situations, the need for fast, up-to-date information outweighs crafting the perfect press release, in my opinion. Utilize social media or brief emails to press contacts including relevant facts or updates to keep all informed during breaking situations. These include weather emergencies, police or fire events, elections and much more. While it’s important your news bursts are correct and verified, the media and the public will appreciate timely, concise updates much more than a perfectly crafted formal message. Write the press release release at the end of the event to circle back and cover all details.
Technology, media and the ways we share news will continue to evolve, so these press release guidelines aren’t necessarily concrete. Perhaps just starting points to reconsider how your organization shares information. Good luck!
Village of Lombard Press Release Examples
Heart Pin Release: In this press release, I did some basic reporting and talked to both the man whose life was saved and a Fire Dept. Lieutenant to add quotations and color to the release. It was picked up by a handful of local outlets – I think the detail helped sell the story.
Active Transportation Alliance study release: This is a release where I had to do a lot of spelling out acronyms and explaining what each organization listed does for the community. We can’t assume the media or the public already knows this kind of information, so it’s important to spell it all out.
Sex Offender Website release: Example of inverted pyramid. The main message is in the first paragraph – and that message is we have a new website, and residents can monitor sex offenders in their neighborhood or receive email alerts if they choose. After the first paragraph, we go into the details of how it came about, why it is useful, etc.
News Briefs: These items aren’t press release-worthy, but they are worth sharing with local media outlets. These briefs are consolidated into one document and labeled accordingly. After I sent, one local paper responded and said thank you – they needed to run bits of information in a news section of the paper.