Press release etiquette?
January 31, 2008 12:31 PM   Subscribe

What is proper etiquette for writing and distributing press releases? General advice, book/website suggestions appreciated; more specific questions inside.

I've been publicity chair of a film society in Chicago for about two months. We have a 500-seat cinema, we screen films every night of the week on 35mm whenever possible (often rare or archival prints), and we have some of the most interesting, eclectic programming in the city. So, in some senses we're very professional.

But the reality is that we're actually an all-volunteer organization staffed by unpaid undergraduates (I'm one, too) and occasional cinephiles from the City. The University is completely uninvolved in most of our work.

So, two months ago I found myself in charge of all of our publicity - with pretty much no experience. I think I've done a pretty good job so far, but I'm concerned that my lack of experience is leading me to make a lot of assumptions about what is and isn't okay to do when dealing with the press.

1: I've mostly been emailing our press releases (we send out one announcing our quarterly calendar and about one a month about special events). Is this a terrible idea?

2: Is it bad form to BCC it to everyone with a generic greeting and "this is the press release for ____. Thanks a lot, etc etc" kind of opening letter? Should I be emailing each reporter individually instead?

3: What should the subject line to an emailed press release read?

4: Should I still put -30- at the end of an emailed press release? (What about a paper one?)

5: Is sending an attached .pdf always bad?

6: Under what circumstances should I mail a paper copy?

7: Should I write to ask if people would like to be added to our press list, or if they want to remain on it? How do I build these sorts of relationships? (This is the kind of thing that seems particularly hard in a four-year institution).

8: How do I inform the press of corrections to my initial press releases?

9: Are there differences in how I should approach newspapers and how I should approach blogs? (I'm particularly worried about my dealings with the Slowdown section of Gapers Block - they seem to have completely ignored everything I've sent them, including questions about how to best submit our calendar of screenings to them).

10: Should I write to thank journalists who write things about us?

11: How long should a press release be?

Any suggestions of web or print resources on figuring this whole game out would be enormously appreciated.
posted by bubukaba to Human Relations (13 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Visit this Web site. I am in PR and have attended some of their classes. They are based in Chicago, too, so you may have an opportunity to take a class from them if your budget allows it.
posted by Ruby Doomsday at 12:53 PM on January 31, 2008

Best answer: I did PR for five years, and my mother has done it for 25. These are not textbook answers, though, so YMMV.

1. I don't think it's bad. Email PR will get lost in people's inboxes, though, so I generally think mailed releases get more attention. My mother sends emails almost exclusively.

2. I always pitched important outlets directly, usually with a call after sending a mailed release. For outlets that were not as important, a mass mail without personalization always seemed appropriate. I tended not to include a salutation if it emphasized that it is impersonal ("Dear member of the press..."

3. The subject line should sell what you're selling. Re: Film Society Announces Spring Calendar. Re: Film Society Screens Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life" March 2-9. Etc.

4. Why -30-? That looks like a page number. ### was the convention as far as I was ever aware. And yes, why not?

5. Attachments can get caught in a junk filter, but I think PDF is fine. Some people balk at Word b/c of fear of enabled macros, but I think that's FUD. Remember to save files in a pc/unix friendly convention, including file suffixes. Savvy people can fix it with a few keystrokes, but many will not be savvy, and you never want your press to do any more work than they have to, or else they will just move on. So, Film.Society.Calendar.pdf.

6. If you have the money, I think always. If not, just send to the important outlets.

7. Generally, I would not bother to ask. Get a copy of Bacon's and send to everyone you think might be interested. I probably had 5 people a year ask to be taken off my list, out of several hundred. If you meet a new contact in person, it is nice to ask, and it gives you a chance to make a pitch.

8. Don't send an incorrect press release. Period. In the event you have to make a correction, do it the same way you sent the original release, but bold and cap that it's a correction. Put it in the subject line of emails. Re: CORRECTION: Film Society Screens Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life" December 2-9. Etc.

9. I don't think so, but others may disagree.

10. No, nor should you berate journos who don't or who write nasty things. That's their job.

11. Rarely do people read past the first couple of paragraphs, so keep that in mind. Otherwise, as short as possible but as long as needed. Two to four pages is generally pretty doable. It helps to have releases on one double-sided sheet, so no following pages could get torn off.

Again, this just reflects my take from my (former) years doing PR.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 1:01 PM on January 31, 2008 [4 favorites]

So, two months ago I found myself in charge of all of our publicity - with pretty much no experience. I think I've done a pretty good job so far, but I'm concerned that my lack of experience is leading me to make a lot of assumptions about what is and isn't okay to do when dealing with the press.

I think that's reasonable and good of you. I don't work on either side of the industry, but just based on the recent kerfuffle here in the DC area and Doctorow's claims that unsolicited press releases get someone in a permanent killfile (love him or hate him, he and other similarly cranky people like him are in a position to get you lots of eyeball views.

From a technologist's view, a one person to one person email is the way to go. Having yourself on the to: line or everyone in the bcc: is a big spam tip and you want to steer clear of automatic filters. Yes it's a bigger pain in the ass but it's well worth it.

From a CAN-SPAM standpoint make sure you're including the required information. I don't know if you're a registered non-profit but if you're sending releases about an event that you collect money to enter then I think you should err on the side of caution.

Beyond that I have two things.

One - why isn't the organization's website in your metafilter profile? I was curious!

Two - have you reached out in any way to Filmspotting, also a Chicago concern?
posted by phearlez at 1:11 PM on January 31, 2008

As someone on the receiving end of press releases, I beg you to send your releases out as soon as things are confirmed. I can't tell you how many times I'll get one for something happening in five minutes or tomorrow. Some outlets can respond to that kind of thing but many can't.

Double-check your spelling and grammar. Make sure you have the who/what/where/when/why questions answered. Make sure the venue address, web site and phone number is on there. Make sure your contact info is on there.

Do you ever give previews to film reviewers? That might help with coverage. Failing that, maybe you could organize a "media night" and invite everyone you know for a special screening or just a wine and schmooze kind of thing.
posted by Atom12 at 1:16 PM on January 31, 2008

Response by poster: These suggestions are fantastic so far - thanks a bunch. Link to the film society homepage is now in my profile, for the curious.

Weirdly, I hadn't even thought of calling papers - what am I supposed to say when I call? "I'm calling from Film Society to tell you about our Winter calender"? "Did you get the press release I emailed you?"
posted by bubukaba at 1:45 PM on January 31, 2008

You might want to try the Publicity Club of Chicago -- they even have an upcoming seminar called "Event-Driven Promotions: How to Get the Media and the Word Out" with a student price of $20.

They also publish a guide called "Getting on the Air & Into Print: A Citizen's Guide to Chicago-Area Media." It has a quick breakdown on how to assemble a press release, and then gives all the contact info for local media. The Harold Washington Library should have the latest edition.

(I don't write press releases, so I can't give specific tips.)
posted by limeswirltart at 1:50 PM on January 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: They know it's a press release when it comes from you and announces an event. I wouldn't hammer it in by titling it with "press release."

Also, you should have a link on your film society website called, "media kit," with your latest press releases, etc. posted there as well. Makes it easy for any newspapers to do a write-up on your society!
posted by misha at 1:54 PM on January 31, 2008

I may be in the minority, but as someone who occasionally receives press releases, I prefer for them to be text in the body of the email, rather than an attachment. The extra step of opening the attachment can seem oddly overwhelming when I'm not all that interested to begin with. The worst is a cryptic email ("We're sure your readers will be interested in our new whatever!") with a link to a web page that itself has a link that opens a PDF.

However, I'm a blogger, not a major news outlet. Bigger operations might have ways of storing press release files and prefer them to be in actual files.
posted by PatoPata at 1:57 PM on January 31, 2008

PatoPata, I totally agree. The info in the release should, I think, be in the text of the email. Having the attachment should just be a way of ensuring the info would look pretty if printed or posted on a bulletin board, forwarded around the office, etc.

Like I was saying above, assume that a reader is willing to give you the amount of time required to read two paragraphs, and no more. Do not make a reader guess or work for anything. No links, nothing in the attachment that is not in the email, nothing cryptic. No large attachments that take a while to download or view on screen. This is not an ARG where you're building buzz by making someone work for a nugget of info. You are addressing a professional whose job is to assemble items of interest for their audience.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 2:10 PM on January 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I am a reporter so I get a lot of press releases. Happy to help. For the most part I like getting them because they are often a source for stories when I am hard-pressed to think of one.

1: No.

2: Nope, as long as you are indeed BCC'ing.

3: Something like "XX Theater's 2008 Season" or "Leonardo DiCaprio Film Festival." Simple and short.

4: I rarely see this anymore so that is probably up to you.

5: Like others have mentioned, putting it in the body of the email is probably better. My preference, anyway.

6: If you don't have someone's email address. I prefer to get them electronically.

7: Sure, definitely ask people if they'd like to sign up. But also make sure it's clearly marked how they can unsubscribe as well.

8: Put in the subject line "CORRECTION: Original Subject Line"

9: This I have no idea. But I will tell you that I don't respond to press releases unless I have any questions or am interested in attending the event.

10: Yes! I love getting (nice) emails. ;)

11: Maybe two paragraphs. I'd try to keep it under 200 words, at the max. Admiral Haddock said it best - "Do no make a reader guess or work for anything."
posted by sutel at 2:43 PM on January 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Great answers already. I do some of the press relations stuff where I work, even if it's not my "real" job:

1: We mostly do emails directly to our press list, but use wire services like Business Wire and Market Wire for any "big" news items. We also have a few Taiwan journalists who like to get faxes rather than email, but email is fine for most people. Just make sure your Subject line is very descriptive and catching.

2: If you use BCCs, you don't need to have a greeting, just send the press release. But BCCing isnt' ideal. You should be looking at mail merging to email, so you can personalize each email that goes out.

3: Ours usually say "PRESS RELEASE: Short, interesting news item". Make it short and interesting, that's the key.

4: I've seen that, but like others we use ###. It denotes the end of the release, so we use it between the end of the release and the Unsubscribe info. (see #7)

5: Not always, but the text should always go in the main email. An attached pdf (never a Word/WP document!) is OK, but shouldn't replace the text in the email.

6: I can't think of a reason to mail a copy, ever. Unless someone asks for one, which I've never had happen.

7: You don't have to ask about adding them, but you should offer an easy, foolproof unsubscribe option. We include standard "unsubscribe" instructions in every email sent to the press. The key is to act on any requests immediately, and have redundancies in place so that someone isn't accidentally added back to the list again.

8: You should do your best never to have to answer this question. Our releases are whetted by everyone on staff at least once. Then we leave them until the next day, so that I can read them again with a fresh eye. That way, we minimize the risk for errors. If you have to make a correction, send it out just like the first one and mark it "CORRECTED". Be prepared for the first, uncorrected release to be used, even if you sent out a correction.

9: I don't think so. It depends on the blogs you are trying to get to cover you, though.

10: Building a personal relationship with journalists who write about your work is huge. We communicate directly with many members of the press on a regular basis, and now they use us as a resource/source for all kinds of stories, even the ones that don't directly concern the organization. So yes, by all means write and say thanks to the author, just don't' overdo it.

11: Ours are never more than 400 words - but that's because it gets prohibitively expensive to use a wire service after the first 400 words. It's a good length, though, I think. Just remember that you have to capture their interest within the first paragraph or two, or they won't keep reading.
posted by gemmy at 6:11 PM on January 31, 2008

This website might help - they're called Our Community (disclaimer - I actually work for them!) but there are literally hundreds of general purpose media and marketing related helpsheets that you can download and use for your group.

Best thing is, the info is aimed at community organisations and it is free.
posted by chris88 at 9:06 PM on January 31, 2008

Best answer: In case you're still looking for answers...

As a blogger, I am barraged by PR folk. I have also been in a position similar to yours when targeting major executives for a conference. Here is my advice to you:

Make. It. Personal. Even if you do opt to send a form letter, try to preface it with a personal note at the beginning of the e-mail. If you use the person's first name, and demonstrate even the slightest knowledge of their company or blog, your response rate should increase dramatically.

Best of luck!
posted by pearl228 at 7:34 AM on February 15, 2008

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