While there are varying degrees of news fit for a news release, the minimum requirement for a news release is – by definition – NEWS.
I like David Zeeck's nonacademic definition of news from a Poynter Institute column: "News is information I need. It’s intelligence that gives me an edge over the competition. It’s knowledge to help me prepare for the worst. It’s facts that set me straight, trends that show me where things are headed, and predictions that may (or may not) come true. It’s wisdom that helps me live better."
There's hard news, soft news, feature news and feel-good news. There are news releases about award recipients, corporate mergers, product launches, medical breakthroughs and deadly police investigations.
News releases should convey news. That's a present tense thing. What's happening now and what's the latest development? Answer those questions for your audience in the opening sentences of your news release, also known as the lead.
Your audience isn't reading your news release for the chronological history of the release's topic. News releases aren't sequential. They aren't the right place for a "first this, then that, finally this other thing happened" style of writing. A well-written news release should look, feel and read like a news article.
Keep it present & active
Quotes, assertions with attribution and short sentences written in the OTPS model (One Thought Per Sentence) all make a news release tighter and more readable.
But, just like a news article, a news release should begin with a punchy, present tense, active lead.
To make sure your news release lead is all of those things, always avoid starting with these three phrases.
- At approximately ...
- Just before ...
- Right after ...
You'll never read a news article about a meeting between two heads of state that starts with, "At approximately 8:27 a.m., the prime minister embarked for the airport to board a plane for Arendelle. He landed just before 10:30 a.m. Arendelle time. Right after stepping off the plane, he was greeted by her royal highness of Arendelle."
Those phrases look back in time. Your audience doesn't want to look to the past. They don't want a sequential retelling. They want what's new and important. Starting a news release with these three phrases immediately puts you behind the eight ball in writing compelling, current copy.
A better lead for our news release about two heads of state meeting in Arendelle might read something like this, "Major peace talks are underway in Arendelle after its monarch welcomed Spain's prime minister in a ceremonial arrival this morning at the nation's only airport."
When a public safety news release begins with, "Just before 11 last night," it's chronological from the get-go. That's unfortunate for the audience because they likely won't get to the "real news" of the release until the fourth or fifth paragraph. That's too late and too far down.
Stick to the 'yes' leads
With a public safety news release in mind, take a look at these alternative constructs that feature present tense leads and avoid the terrible, time-based trio:
- No: At approximately 10:39 p.m. last night, officers responded to 123 Main Street in reference to a call of shots fired.
- Yes: Officers are searching for a gunman who shot a woman to death late last night on Main Street.
- No: Just before 9 this morning, officers were called to the 2100 block of West Avenue after a 911 caller reported a suspicious person in the area.
- Yes: Investigators are interviewing neighbors and asking for tips about a suspicious person reported this morning in the 2100 block of West Avenue.
- No: Right after arriving on the scene of a domestic dispute in the 100 block of Hampton Road, officers drew their service weapons in response to a man pointing a gun at them.
- Yes: Talks between police crisis negotiators and a man who pulled a gun on officers continue on the scene of what started this morning as a domestic dispute.
The "yes" leads above make the events current. They tell the audience what's happening now. That's nearly impossible to do when starting a news release with one of the three time-based phrases I suggest you avoid.
And, one last tip. Take a second look at the "yes" leads above. See what I did with the time-based phrases? I tucked them within the lead, rather than at the end. Working in phrases such as "this morning," "last night," "earlier today" and "yesterday" within the lead, rather than leaving them dangling at the end, makes your copy read better and more current.
There are other time-based phrases to avoid in the lead of a news release, or anywhere in the body, for that matter. Which ones do you stay away from? What tips do you have for writing present tense, active news release leads? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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