When I left journalism for marketing, one of my big worries about switching careers centered on the dreaded press release. Organizations love writing and sending them. They’re usually glowing, self-congratulatory reports of amazing events, awards, and services. They make us feel productive, important, and authoritative.

But journalists hate them. They mock them. They look on most press releases as pretentious attempts at self-promotion by organizations with inflated egos. Most of the time, they file them in their assignment book and never look at them again. I know that’s probably not what you wanted to hear. I’m not trying to be mean. You deserve to know the truth because you work hard on those releases. It takes a lot of effort to write a release that makes all the invested parties happy and it takes forever to get them approved in the library bureaucracy. But they’re not an effective means of getting our message not–not in the current form, anyway.

I’m not saying we should ditch press releases. I’m pushing you to change the way you write your press release. Commit to writing in a way that will interest journalists and make them want to cover your library. Use storytelling techniques to turn our news into an irresistible story. That’s how we get more press coverage.

I found inspiration recently when I came across this amazing, astounding, awesome press release, sent out BY THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT no less. The year was 1921 and the U. S. Department of Agriculture had spent nearly a decade and thousands of dollars trying to hunt down a destructive wolf.

A little background is necessary. I first heard this press release read aloud while listening to This American Life with Ira Glass. According to Glass, when settlers arrived in the American west, they killed off the animals that wolves used to feed on– bison, elk, and deer. The wolves starting killing livestock for food. That angered the settlers, so ranchers and the federal government set out to exterminate the wolves. Between 1883 and 1930, more than 80,000 wolves were killed. The government wanted to tell everyone what a good job they were doing and so they put out press releases. Like this one.

Read The Great Wolf is Killed

An amazing piece of press work, it contains four major lessons for libraries looking to write a better press release. If you want to draw journalists in, make them want to cover your library, and get you more press, here’s what you need to do.

      1. Write a story, not a bureaucratic diatribe. Journalists are an audience that you need to engage. They don’t respond to rhetoric and library jargon any more than a general audience does. They want a story, with emotion, drama, good guys, bad guys, and a plot. Write your release as if you are writing the real story for the publication which you are targeting. We know many newspapers and magazines lift copy right from the release–why not make it something they’ll really want to print? They’ll want something with a catchy headline and a story they can tease to their viewers to get them to watch/click/share.
      2. Ditch the dry, fact-based language and be a journalist. Get real quotes from the real stakeholders… stop making up quotes full of inspirational language that no one will really ever say in real life.  Journalists can see right through that. Interview the stakeholders and use their real words in your release.
      3. There is no right length. The wolf release is four pages and 1500+ words long. And it’s perfect. Write the story. If you have 1500 words and they’re riveting, a newsroom will read and print all 1500 words! Focus on writing great, not writing short.
      4. Spend some time coming up with a great headline. “World’s Greatest Animal Criminal is Dead” is a show-stopper. I usually brainstorm headlines in a word document… I just write freely until I’m clean out of ideas. Then I pick my favorite three or four and run them through the same tests I use when creating an email subject line. Then I sit on it awhile and think about it. Do the same with your press release headlines. This isn’t a throwaway task. It’s the first thing a journalist will see… it could be the catalyst for the final decision they make about your story. Don’t waste it!

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