Hints about Press Releases
There is a lot of misinformation about how to write a press release. My knowledge comes from experience as a reporter, assignment editor, and editor of The Actors Handbook and The Seattle and Eastside Private School Guide.
Function of Publicity and Press Releases
The main function of publicity is to make it easier for the media to report to the public what is going on. Always keep in mind that assignments editors and reporters have to make dozens of phone calls per day and deal with lots of pushy, unpleasant, even borderline psychotic people.
Keep in mind as well that nobody is obliged to publicize your event or issue. Paid advertising is an option. Aggressively demanding coverage will only get you a news blackout. Inaccurate, non-specific information will get you nowhere except the trash can. Also remember that the newspaper is engaged in number-crunching like everybody else. Every inch of unpaid coverage costs them money, so they have to think your event is worth it. If your publicity is short, clear, and to the point, and they don’t have to wade through paragraphs and paragraphs of verbiage, then you are more likely to get publicity.
Having said that, also keep in mind that sometimes assignments editors and reporters are scrambling to fill pages.
1) Utilize the small press
Getting publicity in the neighborhood newspapers is easy if you pitch the local angle. Generally, neighborhood newspapers don’t have a paid staff, so if you write your press release well and send the pictures they may well just print it. Perhaps they will send a photographer and a reporter to interview you. Here is an important fact: The Capitol Hill neighborhood has a population of 50,000 so getting something in The Capitol Hill Times will reach a lot of people. West Seattle has a population of 133,000 and a neighborhood newspaper.
With the neighborhood press, weekly papers, and to a certain extent the citywide dailies, always work the local angle. The advice for reporters is generally to localize things. For instance, if there is some big world crisis going on in, say, Egypt, bring in the local expert on Egypt or a prominent visiting Egyptian scholar to comment on the situation. In theatre play up the micro-local issue, i.e. some of the actors and maybe the playwright live, work, or grew up in the the city or the neighborhood.
2) Work the local angle with neighborhood presses
Here is an example. You have an event in Capitol Hill, such as an outdoor Shakespeare festival. Pass out an information sheet to everyone involved in the production and ask them what neighborhoods they live in and what their hometown newspapers are. Then clump together all the actors/staff who live in one neighborhood (e.g. Wallingford), get a picture of them together and send a modified press release to the neighborhood papers beginning with:
“Wallingford residents John Jones, James Jameson, and Mary Smith will be playing members of the Chorus in Seattle Shakespeare in the Park’s production of Henry V.”
Also put in the neighborhood affiliations, such as “John Jones teaches 5th grade at Wallingford Middle School; Mary Smith is a member of the Chamber of Commerce; James Jameson works at the espresso stand outside the grocery store.” Perhaps Mary Smith grew up in West Seattle and was in the shows at the high school. In that case, send a specialized press release to the West Seattle newspaper and say: “Mary Smith, 1998 graduate of West Seattle High and former member of the West Seattle High Thespians, will be appearing in….” This way you have contacted about 300,000 people. In this example, by using the local angle, you are likely to get into three neighborhood newspapers.
Also find out where everyone’s hometown is and email an amended press release and pictures to the hometown newspapers. Your chances of getting someone to come to an event are greater if they know someone involved in it.
3) Plan an event to get press coverage for an issue
For example, if you want to draw attention to bicycle safety, it is easier to get the issue into the press if you plan a bicycle safety rally. Plan the event and send a press release including a quote from a famous bicyclist, such as: “Pierre de Escargot, winner of the Tour de France, will be discussing the head injury statistics of cyclists not wearing helmets.”
4) Be definite.
Do not publicize anything until you have definite plans.
Going public with a statement like “The Ladies Auxililary of East Cupcake’s Firestation are planning a fundraiser and might be having The Seahawks Quarterback appearing” is not good.
5) Cite your sources.
You will always have more credibility. For example, saying “the experts agree” or “the evidence suggests” does not instill confidence. Always say which expert and what publication you are quoting from.
6) Don’t neglect neighborhood calendars.
Many have online forms for submitting or adding events to their calendars. Or you can email them our event specifically to match the format of their Calendar section.
7) Cover all your bases.
I once worked with someone who thought that because he had passed out 60 fliers at work that we would fill a 55-seat auditorium. To fill even one seat you have to contact an astronomical number of people, and they have to be the right people. It is better to have too many than too few and there is a lot of competition out there for things to do, as well as resistance to leaving the house.
Use whatever it takes to fill your seats—social media, events, star interviews, sneak peaks, promotions to younger audiences, etc. Producers of local podcasts are always seeking interesting guests with stories to share. One theater has become known for it’s free popcorn.
As Susan L. Shulman, press agent for many Broadway productions, says, “"There is a reason it is called Show BUSINESS. If you put on a play and no one comes to see it, it is literature."*
* Backstage Pass To Broadway - True Tales from a Theatre Press Agent,2013, p. 45.