The Power of Prose-How to Write an Impactful Release

by Peter Modica

Did you know that one in every four animals on Earth is a beetle? That fact is the reason why British biologist J.B.S. Haldane (1882-1964) once said that if God exists, then he must have “an inordinate fondness for beetles.”

In public relations, our beetle is the press release.

“When an announcement is worthy of people’s attention, however, I believe that a press release serves as the centerpiece of your PR campaign.”

Every day, my public relations colleagues around the world issue thousands of press releases across multiple industries, competing for attention and coverage in the media. It is the most common document we write for our clients.  The ever-present, sometimes overused, and often maligned—press release.

Many professionals have suggested that the release is obsolete and no longer an effective tool in PR. I agree that, when a company or organization does not have real news, a press release only becomes several pages of wasted ink. When an announcement is worthy of people’s attention, however, I believe that a press release serves as the centerpiece of your PR campaign.

During my 20+ years as a medical writer, I have written and edited hundreds of press releases. From my experience, I know that a thoughtful and strategically written release can provide a strong foundation for building a compelling narrative for a client. Unfortunately, I’ve seen too many releases that simply were not given the attention they deserved.

“One of the biggest problems lies in the name “press release.”  We really should refer to it as a “news release” because it’s first and foremost about the news.”

Poorly written headlines that made it frustratingly impossible to identify the news. Meandering leads overloaded with too many facts and very little substance. Boring quotes with wasted words that said absolutely nothing. These blunders require the reader to work harder than necessary, turning a potential star into an inefficient dud.

One of the biggest problems lies in the name “press release.”  We really should refer to it as a “news release” because it’s first and foremost about the news. Press is simply the moniker for our traditional target audience, but since the arrival of the Internet, that audience has grown considerably. This cannot be understated especially in health and medical PR, where we are sharing information that can be critical to people’s health, and for which we want them to take some type of action.

In my years writing and editing news releases, I have learned and shared many helpful tips that are crucial to crafting impactful prose.

  1. Start with a Pithy Headline and a Strong Lead: Whatever you’re writing about, answer this question first: What is the one message or fact I want my readers to take away?  If they only read the headline and first paragraph, then you need to condense the news into a concise, easy to remember statement. We may be compelled to overwork these two critical parts with too many facts and words. Dismiss that thought as that will only turn away readers. Remember, it’s about quality not quantity.
  2. Know Your Audience: David Ogilvy once said, “If you’re trying to persuade people to do something, or buy something, it seems to me you should use their language.”  Whenever I write a news release, I choose my language based on my audience. In most cases, I lean into more consumer-friendly words. My goal is to make complicated medical information comprehensible and accessible to the public – without the need for an advanced degree in medical science – while simultaneously ensuring my explanation is medically accurate.  If you must use a technical term, then follow it up with a quick definition that people will understand. 
  3. Simplicity = Clarity = Power. I learned this mantra in my first PR job and have been following it for more than two decades.  It means that powerful prose are built on simple language that people clearly understand. Banish all jargon and unnecessarily difficult words. Your reader should not need a dictionary or a translator. Don’t ask your audience to expend that kind of energy; they will just stop reading. Worse, if it’s a reporter, then they won’t cover your news.
  4. Don’t waste your opportunity to say anything inside the quotes. The content of a news release should present only the facts of your announcement – the data from new research, the indication of a new drug approval, the details of a corporate merger.  The quote, on the other hand, is your opportunity to editorialize this news and provide your readers with additional context on the “so what.” Sadly, I often read quotes that repeat factual details or include pointless superlatives, which add little value to the news. When helping a company spokesperson or opinion leading physician draft their quote, take the time to understand what the news really means and why it is important. What impact will the acquisition of a pharmaceutical company have on your client’s pipeline? How might new data affect current medical practice?  How might a new drug transform patient care?  That’s the kind of information that should go inside the quotation marks.
  5. Edit, edit, then edit again. Your first draft is never your final. Before you even share it for internal review with your editor or manager, take the time to read through your document carefully and critically. Is the news clearly stated?  Would your friends and family “get” the science as you’ve explained it?  Have you eliminated any redundancies or useless SAT words? Does it tell a compelling story – one that people want to read – while meeting the client’s objectives? 
  6. Finally, never underestimate the power of a good proof. Remember the school in New York with the word “SHCOOL” written across the crosswalk?  How about in Florida where it was written as “SCOHOL”?  These are unfortunate examples of someone not proofing their work. If you were a parent to a child in those schools, what would be going through your mind as you crossed the street? Think about that and you’ll appreciate a client’s frustration when typos, grammatical errors, or scientific inaccuracies creep into our documents. This especially includes the company name and media contact’s information. Never hit send to the client until the document has been thoroughly reviewed internally and proofed again before going across the newswire.