Press release How to #
How to write press releases
Many contemporary media activist swear that press relices are still worth righting so here is a guide how to do it.
It's vital to get your press release right - newsrooms get hundreds every day and yours needs to stand out. Firstly, it must be written properly - it's a simple and s t r a i g h t f o r w a r d formula and (sorry to be dictatorial) it MUST be applied. If it isn't, your press release won't work. Period.
this might be 2 different chapters: Press release and how to deal with the journalists
Here's how to do it:
1. Write it in the style of a newspaper article, as a journalist might do. Make sure it's properly spelt and grammatically correct (get it read/proofed by several other people) 2. Don't rant. Try to couch your action in journalese - put the ranty heartfelt bits as quotes from your named spokesperson. 3. Get the headline right. No more than 8 words, again like it might appear in a paper - short and to the point - don't use puns or anything they won't understand. The headline has to grab their attention and stop them chucking it in the bin. Use a big bold font. Writing headlines isn't easy, and generally takes a good deal of practice. So practise. Look at how they do it in the papers, then try writing headlines for imaginary actions. Remember: in this as in all writing, a straightforward, plain style is best. Take the Birmingham Northern Relief Road protest, for example. A headline like ‘Protesters occupy trees along route of new road’ will consign a press release straight to the bin, as most journalists will imagine they've heard it all before. But ‘World's longest sermon threatens to stop new road’ (telling the story of the vicar who has discovered that it's illegal to interrupt a priest during his sermon, and intends to preach continually in front of the threatened trees) will make them sit up and wonder what it's all about. If you want to mention the tree-sit, you can do so further on in the text. 4. The first paragraph is the most important. Tell the whole story - the what, why, where and when. This, again, is where you need to grab the journo's attention. The second and third paragraphs expand on the story, assuming they know nothing of the campaign/action/issue, and the fourth might be a quote. 5. Don't write more than a single page of A4. If you need to give more factual information, do so on a separate sheet, called 'Notes for Editors'. Again, break it up, as a large block of text will put them off. Use numbered paragraphs or bullet points to get across facts and statistics. 6. Write the date at the top, and also contact details. Always include a phone number (not just email), where contacts are DEFINITELY going to be for at least the next two days (mobile phone numbers are useful). Include a name (a real person if possible) and repeat the contacts at the bottom of the page. 7. An embargo is useful - put it at the top, above the headline - it means you are instructing journalists not to publish the information before a certain time. There are several good reasons for doing this: - Jounalists know they won't be pipped at the post by other people getting the story before them. - It creates a sense of event. - A timeline concentrates a journalist’s mind. - You know when to expect publicity and can plan your media response around it.
This is the usual format:
EMBARGO: 00.01am, Friday 15th May 00.01 is a good time, as the papers can keep up with the broadcasters, and it's less confusing than 00.00. But be aware that just because you put an embargo on the story, it doesn't mean journos won't be stupid enough to call the police or the company you’re occupying to ask their opinion. So don't stick anything in which you don't want to be generally known. For immediate news, like the press release you send to say you have occupied a building/worksite etc don't use an embargo - put 'for immediate release' instead.
When to send it
Send it out in the early morning (before 10am) for an afternoon event, and the day before if possible. If your event is big, you could send out 'warning' releases 3 days and a week beforehand. If your action is a surprise (like an occupation or a lock-on) have your off-site press officer send out a pre-prepared release the moment you are successful.
Who to send it to
If you think your story is going to generate a lot of interest nationally, send the press release to: all the broadsheet newspapers; BBC newsroom, ITN/C4 newsroom; Newsnight; Radio 4 (Today Programme and PM), Radio 5 Live, Independent Radio News, agencies (Reuters, PA, AP etc). Look at your regional dailies and BBC local radio as well. You should also be aware of your local papers, news agencies and independent local radio (most local radio get their news from IRN, but some do have their own local bulletins) - there isn't enough space to list them all in the Toolkit, but you can get their contact details from the phone book or the Guardian Media Guide - see resources section for info. Don't forget to include individual and freelance journalists and photographers who seem interested in/sympathetic to the cause. You wil also need to tailor your press releases to the recipients - the local rags will need a different headline from the nationals - ' F u l m i n s t e r ’ s bypass threatened by protesters' may interest the ' F u l m i n s t e r Advertiser', but to grab the attention of the nationals you will need something like 'New front opens in road protests'. Don't forget the trade press - many of them take an interest in actions and campaigns affecting their business - during the M11 anti-road campaign in East London, press releases were always sent to the construction press as well as the national media, with some of their journalists following events closely and always seeming interested in the alternatives we proposed - after all, if we want rail instead of roads then they'll probably still be building it. They are also not afraid to provide strong editorial comment on the state of the industry and issues affecting it, with the result that if a particular industry’s media is advocating change, it's only a matter of time before this gets noticed by those who need to keep them sweet to ensure they get re-elected. There is a small database of trade press in the book. We have included the most likely ones we can find, but look around on your next office occupation/site visit to see what they’re reading. Check the Guardian Media Guide for listings specific to your campaign.
Don’t forget the social media, alternative media and email lists - vital for drumming up extra support.
How to send them
Generally the best way to send a press release has been e-mail, but fax is still relevant to many organisations. If in doubt call the newsrooms you want to contact and ask how you should send them a press release. It's generally very productive to spend a few minutes talking to journalists by phone and getting them interested in the story, develop these relationships and you will benefit from this during future actions. We've also found that news agencies (Reuters, Press Association, Associtated Press) can be very useful in terms of the number of outlets they syndicate the story to, so it's always worth making sure they get your press releases.
Always follow press release rules and don't send spam. Snail mail is virtually useless.
Give everyone a call to check you've sent it to the right number, or that it hasn't been buried under a pile of other paperwork. Things often get lost in newsrooms, be it press releases, journalists’ concentration or the essence of the story. The phone call can be a quick one - 'did you receive our press release?', 'will you be covering the action?', 'do you need any more information?' Don't be put off by their rudeness - this is what they're paid for. Be ready to expand on the story, or to tell them why it's such an important issue, especially if they don't think it is. Be concise and polite. If the action is going on for longer than one day (such as an eviction or occupation) then send out a new press release every day - as long as you've got something to say - e.g. 'new record set for crane sitting/tunnel occupation’ etc. This will often give the opportunity to cover the wider issue rather than just the event. If you get some amended contact details or new and useful contacts please let us know (contact info is on inside front cover) - we'll include it in the next edition.
Dealing with journalists in person
The media-exploitation process is about news management - once journalists get to the action as well as when you're trying to attract them. You've got to give the best possible account of what you're doing, and provide the clearest possible explanation of why you're doing it. This means you have to do several things:
Make sure the right people talk to the journalists
We all have different talents, and generally in campaigns, people find their niche. Some people are good at running over aerial walkways or constructing elaborate lock-ons, others are good at designing flyers and newsletters. Some will be good at talking to people, and are persuasive, articulate and well briefed on the issues - these are the people who should be talking to the press. Yes, we know that as well as your single issue, we are trying to change society as a whole, but you have to remember that journos will use any excuse they can to have a go at trivial issues that are nothing to do with the campaign - the finer points of tree-sitters hygiene, the length of dreadlocks, how you are 'not actively seeking employment'... So it is best for the campaign as a whole for the person or people who will be talking to the press to look and sound similar to what the media class as a ‘normal’ member of society - after all they don’t get out often enough and will be having trouble crossing the cultural divide as it is. The best way of practising is by getting together and role-playing activists versus dodgy reporters.
Be careful, but don't come across as suspicious
Some of them will be there to help you, others will be there to undermine you. Sometimes the latter will pretend to be out to help you. The only real safeguards are: - know who they are. Ask them their names and who they work for. If they ring from the Sunday Times asking for details of where to come, tell them you're busy and will ring back later, then forget to ring back. You should find out who the dodgy people are before 8 the action, so you'll know to be ultra-careful if they turn up. - don’t say anything stupid or risky. - be friendly, whoever they are. Bite your lip. Don't put their backs up even if you can’t stand them.
Be a tour guide.
Take them round the event/site and show them what you want them to see. Introduce them to people who'll get on well with them, and keep them away from the people who won't be able to restrain their contempt. If it doesn't seem like a major intrusion on their privacy, stay with them, in a friendly way, and talk them through everything they see.
Be ready to deal with the ones who don't turn up
However good your publicity, lots of journalists won't be able to make it, but might still be interested. They'll want to know what's happening and how things are going, so there should be at least one person available with a working and charged-up mobile phone whose number is on the press release. Journalists are suckers for on-the-spot reports, so when they ring, put some excitement into your voice. Give them plenty of colour, make them feel they can see it.
Interviews, and particularly studio discussions, can be a bloodsport, and you, the interviewee, are one of the combatants. People watch or listen to them in the earnest hope that one or other of the participants will be gored to death. Like any other fight, you win not through brute force but through skill. And, like any other sport, there are rules you have to follow. So here are the rules and tactics. Practice, as in any other sport, is absolutely critical. If you haven't done many interviews before, get someone to pretend to be the interviewer a day or two before you're due to go on, and get her or him to give you a hard time. See how you do, and find out which parts of your technique you'll have to brush up. If you don't practise, expect to be caught out every time. If you do practise, you'll find that all you have to do is repeat what you've been through already.
Rules and tactics
i. Be informed. This is the golden rule. Remember, this is an information war, and the best warriors are those with the best information. Don't go into a studio unless you're confident that you know your subject better than the person you're up against, and can head her or him off if they try to outfox you with some new facts. This means lots of reading. Make sure your information is reliable and stands up to critical examination. ii. Be calm. However much the issue, your opponent, or the media itself winds you up, you mustn't let it show. Generally the calmest person is the one the audience sees as the winner. This doesn't mean you can't be passionate and enthusiastic, but your passion and enthusiasm must be tightly controlled and mustn't, repeat mustn't, spill over into anger or hostility. If necessary, take a deep breath before answering the question. Be polite but firm with everyone. iii. Be concise. It's amazing how little time you get. You must know exactly what you want to say, and say it in as few words as possible, with clarity and determination. The main point must come at the beginning of the interview: you should summarise the whole issue in just one or two sentences before expanding on your theme. Have a maximum of three main lines of argument. Any more and both you and the audience will get lost. iv. It's the answers that count, not the questions. When you go into the studio, you must know exactly what you want to say and how you want to say it. Most questions asked by journos are predictable so you can anticipate what to say and have some answers already worked out - especially for the boring bits they always ask, like the condemn/condone violence one and other things which seem unbearably trivial. v. Don't necessarily answer the question directly - deal with it as briefly as possible, then get to the points you want to make. vi. Sad but true - soundbites are needed. Keep it punchy and short, and put more emphasis in your voice than you would in a normal conversation. You have come to make some important points, and must get them across in such a way that they can't be ignored. It might sound strange when you first do it (and practice it before you do a real interview), but on air it'll sound fine. In fact, if you don't you'll sound flat and boring. It's a bit of a balancing act, projecting well whilst staying calm. Make your points as clearly as possible. Use short sentences and simple words. The best communicators keep some personality rather than becoming smoothy spin doctors.
vii. Finish your point. If the interviewer tries to interrupt before you've got to the important thing you want to say, don't be afraid to carry on talking until you've said it. Sometimes it's useful to say ‘Just a moment’ or ‘If you'd let me finish’. Be assertive without being rude. Don't let yourself be bullied. viii. Turn hostile questions to good account. There are at least a couple of ways of doing this: - Deal with the question quickly, then move on to what you want to talk about. This is the simplest and safest way of handling tricky questions. A good way of doing it is to agree with part of the question, then show it's not the whole story. ‘Yes, of course human welfare is critically important, but that doesn't mean we should neglect animal welfare. At the moment, x per cent of dairy cows die before they're six years old from the terrible conditions they're kept in. Now that doesn't do them any good or us any good.’ - Undermining the factual content of the question. In other words, don't let the interviewer push you into a corner. (eg Q: ‘But, given that biotechnology is necessary to feed the world, what you're really doing is putting wildlife before humanity.’ A: ‘In fact you're wrong to suggest that biotechnology is necessary to feed the world. By concentrating food production into the hands of a few multinational corporations …’). But always, always, bring your answer back round to the point. ix. Leave your notes behind. If what you want to say isn't in your head, you shouldn't be in the studio. x. Use your body. On TV a good rule is that your head and torso should stay fairly still (which makes you seem solid and trustworthy), but your hands should lend emphasis to what you say (they can help to drive your points home). Eyebrows are pretty useful too. xi. Humour. If you can do it without making it sound frivolous or irrelevant, a bit of humour can help a lot to win your audience over. Gently satirising your opponent's position is often quite effective. (‘Well, let's take a look at this Countryside Alliance. Its main funder is the Duke of Westminster, who, as his name suggests, is a horny-handed son of rural toil…’). xii. Don't hate your opponent. This is perhaps the hardest task of all, but it is necessary. Whatever you might think about the person you're up against, you must leave your feelings at the door of the studio. If you allow yourself to hate them, you'll lose your cool, lose focus and lose public sympathy. One way of dealing with your feelings is to regard your opponent as someone who has been misled and needs to be told the truth. Think of your role as being to put them right, rather than to put them down, and you'll find that when you go into the studio you'll be a lot less tense. And remember - when you go into a studio, you are there to tackle one issue and one issue alone, not to put right the ills of the whole world. Concentrate on one task, and you'll make life a great deal easier for yourself.
A. Keeping up your contacts
It's a good idea to write down the names and numbers of all the journalists you meet, and maybe make a brief note of what they're like and how they treated the subject. If you're going to be involved in a long campaign, keep the sympathetic ones informed about it every so often, so that when the next event comes up, they won't have forgotten what it's all about. Share your contact lists and experiences with people in other campaigns: it could help them a lot. And send us your contacts so we can include then in the next edition!
Activists are treated unfairly by the press more often than any other group of people except gypsies, travellers and asylum seekers. The reasons are not hard to fathom: we’re challenging powerful vested interests, are prepared to break the law and, above all, we can be discussed collectively without any fear of libel, as we do not belong to incorporated organisations. So, for example, the Sunday Times claimed that ‘ecoterrorist’ tree-sitters at Solsbury Hill booby-trapped buildings, attacked guards with catapults and crossbows and dug pitfall traps full of metal stakes, safe in the knowledge that, as long as no one was named, no one could sue, even though the whole story was refuted by the police. Had it, on the other hand, made the same allegations about security guards, Reliance would have sued the pants off it, even if neither the company nor the guards were named, as Reliance was the only security company on site. Redressing bullshit stories is difficult, timeconsuming and often very frustrating, but sometimes it works. If we don't complain, the media will feel free to do the same thing again. Here are the options:
i. If you're fantastically rich, have been named in person and have lots of free time, sue for libel. It's not an option for most of us, but if you know a lawyer prepared to work for free, it’s worth sending a threatening letter. It might prompt the paper or programme to issue an apology and settle out of court: a few thousand quid for your cause never goes amiss. Don't try it without a lawyer: they'll laugh it off. There is no legal aid for libel cases.
ii. If you or your movement have been slagged off unfairly in the papers, but there's no possibility of legal redress, there are several other options. None are ideal, but they're all better than nothing: • Write a letter for publication. Make sure it's short, pertinent and not personally insulting. Humour and irony are particularly useful weapons. • If you can bear to, talk to the journalist who stitched you up. Be ultra-reasonable and put your case calmly. Just occasionally, this works, and they relent and write a follow-up piece putting your side of the story (this doesn't work with the Sunday Times). • This is very long shot but, if you've got good writing skills, see if you can persuade the comment editor to let you write a column putting your case. • If it's a local paper - write a leaflet/newsletter etc. with the whole story and distribute these anyway you can. We could not suggest you go into the big newsagents and stick a leaflet in every copy of the rag in question. But you could stand next to the street paper sellers giving them out, distribute to all the houses in an area affected by the story... but this needs time and bodies. • Appeal to the Press Complaints Commission. It's a voluntary body set up by the newspapers and is pretty useless, even though most of its members are now from outside the press. Its code includes guidance on privacy, right to reply and journalists' behaviour. Press Complaints Commission, 1 Salisbury Square, London EC4 8AE. Fax: 0207 353 8355. Tel: 0207 353 1248. iii. If you've been stitched up by the broadcast media, your prospects are rather better. It's governed by laws and codes which are supposed to protect both the public interest and individual rights. For a small complaint, take it up with the progamme concerned: preferably with the producer or series editor. If you don't get satisfaction, try one of the following: • For BBC programmes: The BBC Programme Complaints Unit, Broadcasting House, London W1A 1AA • For an ITV programme: The Independent Television Commission, 33 Foley Street, London W1P 7LB. Fax: 0207 306 7800. Tel: 0207 255 3000. Email: email@example.com • For independent radio: The Radio Authority, Holbrook House, 14 Great Queen Street, London WC2B 5DG. Fax: 0207 405 7064. Tel: 0207 430 2724. If you've got a major complaint, contact the Broadcasting Standards Commission, as well as one of the above. BSC, 7 The Sanctuary, London SW1P 3JS. Fax: 0207 233 0544. Tel: 0207 222 3172. Always ask for a copy of their regulations before making a complaint, so you know what is a valid application. Include the name and date of the programme. Be prepared for a long wait, and keep on their case. Complaining about unfairness in the broadcast media can be s p e c t a c u l a r l y worthwhile, as the producers of Channel 4's atrocious Against Nature series found to their cost. Following scores of complaints, the Independent Television Commission delivered one of the most damning verdicts in its history, with the result that Channel 4 had to make a humiliating prime-time apology and the series director, Martin Durkin, had to resign from the company he worked for. Remember: if they stitch you up and you don't complain, they'll do it to you again and again.
All campaigning is hard work, and exploiting the media is just as hard as any other aspect. We've tended to neglect it in the past, and then wonder why no one comes to our actions. Our movement needs specialist media workers just as much as it needs specialist tree-climbers. The more there are, the more clearly our message will come across, and the more people will be attracted to our cause. This is how small rumblings turn into earthquakes. The revolution will be televised, but that doesn't mean that it won't also be live.
Marc's Note There is on page 8 an press release example which could added here if needed