From the February 2005 issue of Startups

One kind of press release is pure magic; it can catapult your business from obscurity to celebrity. The other kind is a waste of trees.

Take a look at these tips and learn how to take your press releases from bland to buzz-worthy:

1. Think like a reporter. The target audience for your press release is the reporter. And reporters don't care about the success of your business. They only care about whether your press release will make a good news story.

The more passionate you are about your business, the harder it will be for you to understand one critical fact: Your business itself is not news. And if you aren't news, you have to create some news before you can even think about interesting the media.

You're going to sell pasta? No news. Homemade pasta and imported sauces? Better, but you can get those at three other places in town. So instead of yet another "Grand Opening," you'll cook dozens of pasta shapes and sauces from different countries and invite local food writers, restaurateurs and politicians. To top it off, you'll call your event "International Pasta Day," connect it with the current craze for organic foods, and throw it open to the public. Now that's news.

2. Write like a reporter. That means you write the way reporters write news articles. Don't use I, we or you, except within interview quotes. Avoid fancy fonts or quirky formatting, and don't change fonts within the body text.

3. Make the headline count. Would you be reading this article now if it had been entitled "Yet Another Article"? Seems unlikely.

Your headline is the bait for your pressrelease. If it's just ho-hum or, worse, nonexistent, it won't matter how riveting the rest of the text is because it will never get read.

Pare all unnecessary words from your headline until it's packed with your most exciting news. Try imagining it on the cover of your town newspaper--if it feels out of place, keep working on it until it doesn't.

Capitalize the first letter of all major words, or use all caps. If the headline runs longer than two lines, don't hesitate to divide it into a headline and a subhead.

"Announcing Grand Opening of New Store" is a dreadful headline because it says nothing about what makes you different from last week's 10 other grand openings. But "Seattle Invited to Take a Bite of International Pasta Day" should have reporters scrambling to call you for interviews.

4. Catch 'em early. You'll often hear that the first paragraph is where you should cover the "five Ws and an H": who, what, when, where, why and how. In reality, trying to jam all this into one paragraph can bury your news under a mountain of information.

Keep the first paragraph short with no more than 30 words summarizing the most interesting aspect of your story. Don't be afraid to take two or even three paragraphs to get to those five Ws and H. As long as the paragraphs are succinct, they'll pull the reader in deeper.

This isn't the place for your company boilerplate, your biography or your product list. Read the first two paragraphs of all the news stories in your local paper, and base your writing on those examples.

5. Don't sell anything. A press release is not a sales letter. You write both to push your business, but with a press release, you have to give the impression that you're out to inform, not to sell. Reporters will toss any press release that reads like a sales pitch.

Don't make promotional offers or use any phrasing that could be used in an ad. Beware of hyperbole (like "absolutely the best selection"). Stay away from hype-laden expressions like "breakthrough" and "state of the art." Don't run down your competitors or make exaggerated claims.

Don't capitalize or underline sentences within the body of the text. Try to avoid using exclamation points, and if you must use them, stick to only one. Never do this!!!!!

6. Be easy on the eyes. It's very tiring to the eye to read entire paragraphs in ALL CAPS or italics. Reporters will toss rather than slog through anything written this way.

Use a standard font in a size that's large enough to read easily (11 or 12 points). Align your lines to the left (don't justify), and make sure there's enough space between lines and paragraphs.

7. Watch your language. Triple-check your grammar, spelling and punctuation. Mistakes can destroy your credibility. Beware of words that sound or look similar, like their/they're/there or affect/effect. Remember, apostrophes are for possessives, not for multiples (pastas, not pasta's). If you're in any doubt of your language skills, find a proofreader.

8. Be accessible. Unless you've just discovered the cure for cancer, reporters won't make any extra effort to contact you. Include an e-mail address, a phone number and the hours when you can be reached, and put them where they're easy to spot.

9. If you are still in doubt, consider hiring a professional copywriter. Press releases are fairly affordable even on the tightest budgets--especially considering that the publicity you get as a result of your press release can ultimately make or break your business.


Isabella Trebond, a former news reporter, is a consultant who specializes in startup business marketing and copywriting.