Failing to establish immediately that the press release contains news is a common mistake. Don't expect a journalist to wait to find the story further down your painstakingly crafted prose - they won't bother. Start with the main facts and then go on to develop the story, but never over more than two pages.
Make the story sound immediate. Ideally, get the word 'today' in the first paragraph. If that's not possible, because you're writing about something that's happened already, use the present perfect tense. For example: "Scientists have identified the gene responsible for colon cancer."
Another mistake is to try to be too clever. Your colleagues may be impressed by Shakespearean quotes, elaborate metaphors and cunning puns, but journalists usually find these a real turn-off. Keep paragraphs and sentences short and use direct, colloquial language.
An attention-grabbing headline can help to sell the story. But don't get so carried away that your headline is misleading. Something like "Eating strawberries and cream can help people with leukaemia" might get noticed, but the journalist may be disappointed when they read on to discover you are actually writing about a fundraising hospitality event at Wimbledon.
Quotes are another good way to bring your press release to life. Make sure you avoid meaningless stock phrases such as "we are delighted" and go for a quote that conveys real emotion and adds a genuine human angle to your story.
For example, compare "I am delighted to support this very worthy charity, and look forward to using this very exciting climb to raise money to go towards the treatment and care of children with cancer" with "All the way up I reminded myself why I was doing the climb. I thought of how brave and determined Lily was when she was undergoing treatment, and how much she benefited from the treatment and care she got. It kept me going through what was definitely one of the hardest things I have ever done."
One final word of caution: be careful not to spark an idea for giving the story an unintended twist. Seemingly run-of-the-mill press releases about significant charitable donations have been known to result in a story that does much to expose the private financial affairs of the benefactor, but little to promote the charity.
- Robert Ashton is chief executive of consultancy Emphasis.