Top tips for writing a press release
By Simon Hettrick.
Whether you're researching a cure for cancer or the eating habits of the common toad, every now and then you'll want to tell the outside world about your research. It's time for a press release! Here are our five top tips on preparing one.
1. You need professional help
Press releases need to be written in a journalistic style that will appeal to publishers. Most organisations will have press officers whose job it is to write press releases for researchers. This is typically a free service, because it's in your employer's interest to showcase your successes. To find a press officer, ask the faculty member responsible for marketing or contact the marketing department of your university or employer.
Once you've been assigned a press officer, he or she will meet with you and discuss your story. Generally, a draft will be written and you'll get a chance to review it before it is published (nonetheless, always make sure that you tell the press officer that you want to review the release).
This isn't to say that you can't have a shot at writing the press release yourself, but keep in mind that it requires a specific style of writing (see point 5 below).
2. What's the story?
Every story needs a hook: something that grabs the reader's attention. Although a press officer will help you decide on a hook, it's good idea to have a think about it yourself. For one thing, it's a handy indicator of the newsworthiness of your release. If you can't think of something exciting, it's unlikely that someone else will.
Deciding on a hook requires a bit of amateur psychology. Think of your potential readers: what do they love, what do they hate, what are their motivations and what are their prejudices? If you can link to a strong emotion, you are likely to generate interest. (Famously, sex and death are the big hooks for most people, and it's amazing how these somewhat racy subjects can be linked to pretty much anything.)
Remember that the things that excite academics can be different to the things that excite journalists. The best example being funding. Getting funded is big news for an academic, but journalists are generally uninterested in funding until it's been used to do something.
3. Where to publish?
Think about where you want to publish. This will dictate the hook you choose, the style of writing and the level of technical detail that you should include.
Everyone wants to get something into Nature, New Scientist or one of the national papers. They have a huge readership, but this means there's fierce competition for space. You'll be competing with everything from world events to celebrity stories. Sometimes it's better to aim for a more specialist market, such as magazines and website that service your research area. They may have a smaller distribution, but they're much more likely to publish your work.
You now have to decide how to contact publishers. This is a job that's best left to press officers, because they will have the necessary contacts, and will most probably have accounts with distribution networks, such as Eurekalert and AlphaGallileo. Distribution networks give you access to thousands of publishers from the big national papers to specialised blogs. You can of course use your own press contacts if you have them, and this is when the truth in the adage "it's not what you know..." really comes to light. You can also try contacting publishers blind, but the chances of success are pretty low.
Of course, the difficulty of distribution depends entirely on the strength of your story. If you've just cured cancer, you can sit back and wait for the papers to come to you (and they'd pay too). If you've just completed a study into the eating habits of the common toad, you'll have to do the work.
4. Grit your teeth when it comes to detail
A press release is about gaining exposure for your research. Exposure is kudos for you, and increases the likelihood of persuading funders that your work is important. A press release is not about communicating the minutiae of your work. You may have spent the last three years waist deep in stagnant water watching what toads eat, but it's unlikely you'll get to say much about the experience (unless there's an anecdote: journalists love genuinely funny anecdotes).
It's easy to get frustrated when a press officer or journalist wants to focus on the headline grabbing element of the work, and not the work itself. They are also liable to skim over details that they see as unexciting. The phrase necessary evil crops up a lot when dealing with the press, and this is just one example. The exposure you gain from a press release could be instrumental in bringing in new collaborators, increasing your standing in your organisation and bringing in more funding (you might even be able to get a research student to do all the standing around in stagnant water). If you can grit your teeth when it comes to overlooking detail, you'll end up with a story that's more publishable and hopefully the exposure will make the whole experience worthwhile.
5. Learn to write... again
Writing for scientific papers is a million miles away from journalistic writing. Academic writing takes a number of facts, strings these together with theory and slowly builds to a conclusion. Journalistic writing starts with the conclusion (and often a conclusion that's been calculated to appeal to a specific audience), because it's the most exciting bit. If the reader hangs around for long enough to read more, the journalist can start to explain the reasoning behind the conclusion. This writing style is dictated by the golden rule: someone should be able to read the first paragraph of the press release and know exactly what the press release is about.
There are many good online resources that describe how to write a press release, such as this one at SciDev and this one from the European Space Agency (you can even pick up some writing tips from our style guide). And for the real hardcore press-release writers, I recommend reading the Economist Style Guide (which is also available online). It may sound about as exciting as the eating habits of the common toad, but it's an incredibly interesting and useful book.
Posted by Simon Hettrick on Friday 26 October 2012.