February 27, 2008
How To Write and Create Effective Publicity Materials
By Sylvia Schildt
You just got stuck with writing the next publicity release or press alert for a major event for your organization. “Whoa!” you say, “I’m a (teacher, program coordinator, rabbi, volunteer … you fill in the appropriate designation.) No way is this in my job description.” But after several lame, ill-fated attempts to pass the burden on elsewhere in the organization, you realize resistance is futile.
By Sylvia Schildt
(Author’s Note: This piece, while laying down the basics, is focused on major high profile events. With so much at stake, you’ve got to get it right the first time.)
You just got stuck with writing the next publicity release or press alert for a major event for your organization. “Whoa!” you say, “I’m a (teacher, program coordinator, rabbi, volunteer … you
fill in the appropriate designation.) No way is this in my job description.” But after several lame, ill-fated attempts to pass the burden on elsewhere in the organization, you realize resistance is futile.
Welcome to my world.
You must now, along with your many other talents, become an effective writer. And that’s no easy task. Writing, i.e., getting your facts in a row and your sentences flowing coherently, is only part of the challenge.
You must use your podium to excite curiosity, engage interest, elicit specific behaviors and most important of all, get your message out to the public – for free! Remember, this is what distinguishes your piece from paid advertising, where you can more or less write anything you want, and place it in any publication you wish, to suit your timing. So now you must convince an editor, who gets these pieces by the hundreds – via e-mail and snail mail – that your message is worth free space
, the precious real estate your promotional budget could never afford.
What’s even more important, is that material printed in the main part of a magazine or newspaper, or exposed within a radio or TV program, has more credibility than a paid ad or commercial.
The Preparation Stage
You are not ready to write at this stage, but if you prepare properly, the actual writing will be that much easier and more effective and you’ll have a better shot at that real estate.
I am fairly sure you have heard that a good news story answers the questions of who, what, when, where and why. But you should also be aware of to whom
it is to go, both in terms of the editors and the target audience.
These two may not always be in synch. Let us say you are trying to reach out to those Jews in your area who like to read and discuss Jewishly-oriented books in conjunction with a book signing. But the target publication tends to be concerned with sports, life occasions, local organizational politics and synagogue activities. They are more likely going to dole out that precious real estate to news of the Maccabi tryouts or the new building addition to the JCC, than to your event.
Emphasize the event’s connection with established local organizations or entities – if they are also big advertisers in that publication or add prestige, better still.
Crafting the right message will make or break your release.
The two most prevalent reasons a release goes into the circular file are:
1. It is too general.
2. It fails to convince writers and editors that your story is of immediate interest or concern to their audience.
Obviously, specificity is the antidote to generality. And finding the right hook or story angle can make the difference between tossed away or taken up.
The first thing you want to is know your target publication. Familiarize yourself with the kind of stories it considers newsworthy. This will help you develop your hook.
Where do you go to find your hook? Look for a local tie-in -- a human interest or back story would work. Also look for a reader’s benefit – physical, spiritual, financial, social. Why should someone get into his or her car and drive the X miles?A Look at the Development Process
Suppose you have to promote a book signing for someone who wrote a book on kosher dieting. The author is not local – this is just another stop on the book tour. Try to find local dieting experts or success stories to incorporate into the piece. Interview them and “mine” your interview for juicy quotes. A good line uttered by a local figure could seal the deal in terms of getting your story into print. It could become the jumping off point of the entire release.
If you can’t find any local tie-in, you might tie into a universally understood image -- the plump Jewish grandmother, the bubbie, symbol of home, hearth and the schmaltzy kosher kitchen.
Your hook could be something like:
For Dr. X, the chubby bubbie is history!
Dropping unwanted pounds just got kosher. His approach in his book, Dieting Kosher, takes the bulge out of brisket, the fat from fellafel.
Here’s how you could spin it:
Local rebbitzin attributes her 50 pound weight loss to Dr. X’s kosher dieting book.
“I couldn’t find a way to take off the pounds I put on during the Jewish holidays. All those delicious dishes really added up. Until I read Dr.X’s book on Dieting Kosher. Then the pounds came off. And no one in the family suspected I had changed a thing. ”
Copy could continue from this point:
That’s why when Dr. X breezes into town on August 15th, to talk about Kosher weight loss at the Shmendrick Auditorium at the Dr. & Mrs. Irving Cohen Community Hall, Rebbitzin Levine will be in the first row, eager to hear him speak, and have him sign a bunch of copies she plans to buy for her chunky relations.
You could then segue into the nitty-gritty of the event itself -- the who, what, when, where details. And these should be checked and double-checked before sending out the release. Pay particular attention to phone numbers and e-mail contacts. Include any web site url’s your readers should see. You want to be very precise about phone numbers and extensions in larger organizations, and you want to keep everyone informed – not just the top layers, but everyone, down to the staff that guard the entrances. How many times do we hear of people being misdirected or turned away by a “gatekeeper” who was not in the loop?
Be sure to have all the payoff information correctly indicated – the sponsoring organizations, the name of the hall and auditorium, even the building. People get very touchy if names of people in whose honor they richly endowed your institution, are omitted or incorrect.
You will also want to tie the event to the specific mission or program of your organization. It is a good idea to craft a very tight line or two, have it approved by the proper departments, and keep it in a file, that you can just drop in with a cut and paste technique.Summarize Your Message
Identify the specific topic, generally in 4 to 10 words, and this will be the headline of your release. This is where you will grab or lose the attention of your editor. And if you think of these editors as the gatekeepers of precious free ink, you’ll understand how important this headline is.
Here are some criteria for crafting an effective grabber:
- It must be abnormal, rather than run-of-the-mill.
- It should be something or somehow unique.
- If it is a national story, focus on local aspects.
- Look for a seasonal activity or problem.
- Focus on an unusual event.
- Offer a new solution to an old problem.
- Present new information that challenges conventional wisdom.
Words like “launches”, “announces”, “introduces” and “presents”, virtually guarantee a weak headline – they say nothing and have a self-serving tone, which will probably elicit the who-cares response.
The Question of Length
Experts tell us to write clearly and be concise. Use the active mode rather than the passive -- “Cantor Shapiro Sings Mendelsohn” is stronger and more concise than the passive mode “Mendelsohn Will Be Sung by Cantor Shapiro” -- you would be surprised at how often releases use the cumbersome passive mode. It’s slow, hard to read and very old-fashioned, yet very popular with organizational writers.
While many feel a one-page release works, I take exception. Let the subject drive the length. There are times when the subject is soooo important and multi-sided that it cries out for more. Keep most of your pieces to a single sheet, and when you do a longer one, it sends the signal that this is more important.The Basic Format
If you’ve never written a publicity release, this section will help you sketch out the key elements. This can also serve as a template for future releases.
The first element is the letterhead itself,
the identifier of your organization. It establishes who you are, and your legitimacy in the community.
Next comes the release date,
immediately following the letterhead. If your material is confined to a specific time period, use the exact dates. I always put this in bold caps. Be careful what you put down, because if the time period passes and the story has not been run, your release package and all it contains may be discarded or filed away somewhere, never to be seen or heard of again. If time is not of the essence, the typical term is:
--FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE--
I like to add words like “URGENT” or similar term, without tying myself down to a specific date.
Next comes the powerful headline
– the grabber. It should draw attention to your news story and its exact point. Use caps, bold face and center it under the release date with extra space above and below, so it really jumps out for even the most casual, distracted reader. After you have written it, and love it, go over one more time, pruning away excess ue of words like a, an, the and prepositions, as these slow down the impact.
The lead paragraph should summarize your entire story in a nutshell.
It should not exceed 3 sentences. It should give the who,what, when, where and why of the story in a friendly manner.
The remaining body paragraphs elaborate on your story, fleshing out the details.
This is where you can add quotes from prominent and relevant people. Keep your style short and snappy. Use familiar words and stay away from clichés, redundancies and bombastic self-praise – these are instant turnoffs. For the average story, about two such body paragraphs will do.
End with either ###, -end- or -30-.
: supply correct and complete phone, extension, cell or snail mail address for follow-ups.
The Question of Style
Be direct and write the way people speak. Involve and engage the reader. Write as if your release would appear in the desired publication, but don’t try to cram the whole story on one page.
Don’t use language curlicues, outdated words, foreign words, anything that slows the reader down.
Watch those initials. Organizational life is full of initials. Within the organization or field, most people know their way around this alphabet soup. But do not assume publication editors or even your target audience do. Spell it out first is a good rule, initials in parentheses to follow. Later on in the text you can refer to the initials to save space.Communicating Mission or Progress
Promoting an event is a straightforward task. It is concrete. This, this and this event is happening at this place.
But there are other reasons you may want to go after that precious real estate – free space. Events like breaking ground, renovations, introducing new programs and curricula, statement of a new mission or function, birth of a new organization, management changes, and other similar events, while important within an organization, are matters of indifference to both editors and readers alike.
Sometimes, you will enjoy courtesy exposure at the discretion of a friendly editor. But that still won’t get you past the indifference of the reader. So try to make your story important and meaningful. Start with a needs angle. For instance, you have a story about a new senior daycare facility -- start with some gut-wrenching stories of seniors and caregivers in trouble. Want to launch a new Jewish education program? Don’t bury the piece in statistics, make it real and personal. Show how the specific descendents of some famous sage or other now live in a world disconnected from their Jewish roots.
Timing is Crucial
Some stories need to be told all in one go. Check the lead times for approaching media outlets. Magazines need months to go from your pitch to publication. Newspapers need one to two weeks, and weekly publications prefer longer lead times. If your story needs to be told in segments, work this out in a calendar and follow through with the editorial staff. Radio and TV stations tend to run on a shorter leash. If you can, it’s still a good idea to have a piece on file with them, and sometimes if an opportunity breaks, you can contact them same day and actually make the news.
Suppose you have a project which will be unfolding over a period of weeks, months, even several years. You should break it down into stages, beginning with an initial kick-off stage. Your pitches to the media should alert them to the long-term nature of the project. But each time you submit a piece along the road, refer to the original premise. Never assume this is the same editor you dealt with before. People get sick, married, promoted, go on vacation, leave for other jobs. So always be sure the full story is included with previous material relegated the role of background in the info kit.
The Media Alert
Sometimes the importance of an event speaks for itself. This is the time a short crisp media alert is enough, and often better than a full scale press release. It usually contains the who, what, when and where of your event and invites reporters to attend. The Media Packet
Big events call for a full-blown media packet in which you gather all the ingredients, including the primary release, relevant back stories, biographical info, sketches and photos. The packet can be as simple as a pocket folder with neatly identified organizational logo and title label. Or if you have the budget, it can be very creative and elaborate.
When I was running up to an International Yiddish Conference here in Baltimore, I discovered that my city had beautiful, glossy Welcome to Baltimore pocket folders rich with local visitor highlight photos. There were even matching mailer envelopes. There was space for affixing the Conference and organizational logos. Best news of all, they were free. So I asked for and received several hundred, and they served me well throughout the entire promotional period and even as conference packets. Without my having to spending a penny, they gave a certain visual continuity to all materials connected to my conference and didn’t cost a penny. In fact, they saved me the cost of conference packets, adding up to about $250.00.
How to Present Your Package Electronically
Traditionally, releases and publicity packages were presented by mail or by messenger. More and more, both senders and publications are relying on e-mail and internet as the pathway of communications.
While the essential ingredients are the same, there are certain issues you should be aware of.
The subject line is a very important element unique to the e-mail and you should not underestimate its value. While your publicity release is a document in its own right, and you should send it as a Word document or a pdf, the subject line is the grabber before the grabber. It is as much a selling tool as anything else in your package. If possible, you can repeat your headline as a subject line. Or at least, use some form of it.
Make sure all links and urls (internet addresses) are correct.
Send attachments, including photos, in the same mailing, making sure that your attachment has been compressed – if it is not, it will require too much memory and may therefore bounce. If you have multiple pieces, it is better your split your sending into two distinct messages and alert the publication you are doing so.
Cover All Bases
If possible, send your message electronically and by e-mail. Follow up by phone to be sure your packages fall into the appropriate hands.
If there is Jewish programming in your area, try to get key individuals, whether local or prominent out of towners, interviewed on the air. It adds another dimension and helps continue the buzz. Local cable companies augment their programming with “talking head” interviews. One of the advantages of these is, that often these interviews are repeated several times over a period of time to fill programming gaps.
You want that free space in which to tell your story. But keep in mind that you are playing a competitive game. Editors are not waiting with baited breath for your news. So your first attempts to snag that precious space may not succeed. Your attempts to connect may fail for many reasons out of your control. So don’t give up. Try another angle, another twist and keep on peppering them with information. Ultimately, you will succeed. And of course, you will want to follow up by phone, letter and e-mail. Make friends at your target publications and you will learn even more about who to contact and who will make the crucial decision in your favor.
We live in a world inundated with information clutter. The newspaper, your car radio, TV, I-Pods and Blackberries, e-mails and the internet – all pound the individual from the moment of awakening on. It is very hard for a specific message to pierce this clutter and be remembered.
My advice then, is to make your communication as clear, precise and targeted as possible. Try to get multiple exposure at different stages of your project. And be as multi-media as you can – don’t just rely on a publicity release, no matter how well-crafted to bang home your message. Reinforce your initial exposure with radio, TV, internet, e-mail blasts, you tube, newsletters from your own and partner organizations—whatever it takes to create a buzz commensurate with the importance of your message.