I’ve read tens of thousands of releases and written a few hundred articles based on them, so I’m speaking from experience when I say knowing what to look for—and what to look out for—in a press release will make your job a lot easier. It will help you pitch articles, accept or decline article assignments, and do a quicker, better job on the articles you take.
What’s the scoop? The heading and first paragraph should give the core facts of who has done what or what is going to happen. Some releases and pitch letters do a multiparagraph song and dance instead of getting to the point. If you have to waste time just to figure out what the release is about, it’s not a good sign.
Is there any news? All too frequently, a press release doesn’t actually have any news in it. I’ve been snookered by this many times. I’ve gotten halfway through writing up an article or 15 minutes into a phone interview with the PR person before determining “there’s no news here.” Phooey.
Who, what, when, where, and why?
An astonishing number of releases gloss over these supposedly minor details and assume that the journalist recognizes certain abbreviations and knows when and where things are happening. To some extent, that’s fair. If you don’t know, it’s probably not on your beat. But there are always writers new to the beat who must waste time searching for the information.
How much, when available, who and what for? For product-related releases, availability and price are most important. After all, what’s the point of reporting product announcements if you can’t tell your readers when they can expect to get the product and how much it will cost? The price can vary for some products, but even a terse “starts at around $20” is useful. Pricing is often in one of the last few paragraphs of a release, so you may have to skip to the end. Availability is sometimes noted in the first or second paragraph. Sometimes, it is noted toward the end.
Ask who or what the product is for. A lot of products fit within one or more technology ecosystems. Depending on your audience, you may need to confirm that the product is available within their geography, which is usually determined by country or continent.
Is the contact and resource data available? Does the release include URLs for products, events, or other key details? Is there PR/media relations contact information, preferably specific names along with phone number and e-mail address, rather than a generic info@ and media relations phone number? You can’t tell until you try whether these people will answer your calls and messages, but if you’re on deadline, at least you don’t have to invest effort to identify whom to talk to.
Look for short quotes from industry analysts or customers, particularly if direct quotes are something your editor wants in the story.
Most press releases will have one or more paragraphs of self-congratulatory back-patting blather that is typically a quote from the chief executive. Skim, in case there’s something useful there, but don’t count on it.
The press release is something written and reviewed by a bunch of people. Even if they all mean well, they have different agendas, priorities, and information access. There’s a good chance some of the facts in the release are wrong or things have changed. There’s an even better chance that the really interesting information for your readers isn’t there.
Depending on your time, editorial expectations, and compensation, even a brief chat with one of the key individuals can unearth this information. This can make the difference between your article simply restating what’s in the release and what the news really is. The story that your readers want isn’t necessarily the story the release is telling.
Even if you do generate an article that, while based on the original press release, goes far and above that release in accurate, useful information, it’s entirely possible neither your editor nor your readers will notice. Or they may notice but not care. But your source and PR folks in the loop will notice. You may come away with ideas for other stories you can pitch and sell, as well as good contacts for when you’re writing other stories in this area.
Approach a press release the way you would approach food you’re about to buy: examine it carefully to make sure it’s all there, and sniff it to make sure it’s good. Be prepared to treat it as the starting point rather than simply a puzzle to reorganize—if time and price allow you that luxury.