In 1906, near Gap, Pennsylvania, a terrible train accident killed 50+ people.

The accident was, of course, a tragedy for everyone involved, but potentially also a disaster for the Pennsylvania Railroad. They retained one of the first public relations agencies, Parker & Lee. The agency had been founded only a year before the accident in 1905 as the third PR agency in the US.

One of the founders, the legendary PR professional Ivy Lee, wanted to help the Pennsylvania Railroad, his first major client, to get the right story out, so he created the first ever press release. And rather than trying to suppress the story, which was common practice at this time, he invited the press to the scene. In spite of the unfortunate accident, the Pennsylvania Railroad got good press coverage for managing the disaster well.

Keeping the press (and the public) up to date with an official statement is still something we should strive to do. So how do you write a classic press release?

Download the classic press release template (zip file contains pdf, pages, and docx).

The elements of a classic press release

The classic press release format is by no means rocket science (even though there are plenty of bad press release habits out there). The secret is to not include sales jargon, qualifiers, and superlatives.

Download the classic press release template (zip file contains pdf, pages, and docx).

Release note and contact information

You’ve probably seen it, “FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE.” It’s a legal thing (it shows that this information is intended for distribution) and it also works as a placeholder in your template (this is where it says “DRAFT” or “DO NOT DISTRIBUTE” while you’re collaborating with your colleagues prior to releasing the information. It can also be used if you’re sending out the release to journalist beforehand, “EMBARGOED UNTIL …”. Just remember that journalists are free to disregard your “embargoed” press release and publish the information immediately1.

Date and location

You should include the date of sending the press release out. For global wire releases, it sometimes makes sense to add the city from which the press release originates from. Both the date and the city are often added right before the intro.

Headline and brief summary

The headline should include the brand name and be descriptive rather than witty or smart. Press release titles can be very long, though. The idea is to give the reader the full scope just from reading the title. The title is often in bold and a larger font, but this won’t work for plain-text wire releases. Also, press releases in English often have all important words capitalized, but this is often confusing for non-English speakers. Writing the headline in all-caps solves both of these problems.

The intro should summarize the news hook in 1-2 sentences. This is part is usually the most difficult to write; it should include everything that’s already in the headline, but still, add more detail and context.

Focus the headline and the brief summary on the underlying conflict. Remember the old adage, “news is what someone don’t want to see in print.”

Content and quotes

There content consists of descriptive paragraphs and quotes. A good rule-of-thumb is to alternate between them. If your first paragraph under the intro is a quote, the next one should be a descriptive paragraph, and then a quote again, and so on. Also: If any of your sentences is longer than 25 words, consider shortening them.

A good way to start is to answer five basic questions:

  • Who?
  • What?
  • When?
  • Where?
  • Why?

When it comes to formatting, you could turn your press release into an interactive microsite with mouse-over effects and pop-up tooltips. But for the most important use cases (news aggregators, plain-text email send-outs, wire services like PRNewswire or PRweb etc.), your press release must work in plain, unformatted, text.

Writing quotes often takes some getting used to. Here are a few good rules:

  • Avoid qualifiers (good, great, unique, impressive, perfect, solid, etc.).
  • Avoid expressing emotions.
  • Write in a speaking voice.

Boilerplate and website link

Your boilerplate shouldn’t be cute or cool, just informative. Most organizations have standardized boilerplates, but if I can, I make sure to add a boilerplate that works well with the content of the press release.

The hashes

Signal the end of the news item by adding three consecutive hash signs, “###”. Your press release should ideally fit on one page, but never be longer than two pages (unformatted) — including all the different parts described above.

Download the classic press release template (zip file contains pdf, pages, and docx).

Photo by Bank Phrom on Unsplash.

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  1. Theoretically, you could get a journalist to sign an NDA (non-disclosure agreement, but few journalists would agree to that.