Taming Beastly Press Releases
Updated: Jan 8, 2019
By Liz Neeley
As a verb, pique means “to stimulate (interest or curiosity).” As a noun, however, it has a rather different sense: “a feeling of irritation or resentment.” It strikes me that there may be no more perfect word to describe a certain fixture of the science journalism world…the press release.
Done well, press releases can offer researchers the chance to tell their stories on their own terms and alert interested reporters to a story they won’t want to miss. Done poorly, they are usually —and, at worst, they can even distort the story of the science they attempt to share. Over time, frustration with the onslaught of bad press releases can incite spectacularly splenetic responses… as I discovered when I asked a number of my writer friends to comment for this post. Within just a few sentences, an unusually droll, literary group of people was reduced to profanity and emoticons. Yes, emoticons.
A visual guide to a typical science press release format.
The most important thing to remember is that while there are some useful conventions you should observe, writing a good press release is not about slavishly adhering to a template. Form should follow function, and the function of a press release is information transfer in an appetizing, succinct format. Success is about giving the journalists reading your materials what they want and need, and inspiring them to dig deeper. How should you go about that? What works or should be avoided like the plague? I asked Alan Boyle, Bryn Nelson, Chris Joyce, Ed Yong, Erik Vance, Hillary Rosner, Mark Fischetti, and Susan Moran—a diverse group of science journalists whose work I admire and opinions I respect. If their names are not familiar, click through on the links above; you’ll want to know them. I’ve excerpted and combined their answers below—do go read the full text for each of them, they’re brilliant.
Do you read press releases? What are you looking to get out of them?
Chris: I do read press releases. Not for their literary value; for the straight skinny, in the shortest number of words possible. I’m in a hurry because you only count if you can make my next story better. Selfish? Yep. Are all journalists that way? Geez, I hope it’s not just me. What I hope to get out of them is…see above. If they accompany a science paper, then a precis of the paper, sans jargon, the sine qua non of the scientist’s work, and ne plus ultra. And no fancy French words, please.
Ed: I skim their headlines. If something grabs me, I read the first paragraph. If that grabs me, I ask for the paper… I use press releases as signposts to stories. And then I set fire to the signposts. Erik: Absolutely. But as a freelancer, the way I read them is totally different than a staffer. As a freelancer, I can only sell the very best, the most engaging ideas. So I am only looking for the diamonds in the rough. Also, I cannot sell the big stories. So if there is a big announcement, I skip it because everyone will be doing it and I will never sell that story. I am looking for the story no one else has. I want to find the thread that unravels the sweater. Mark: Yes, if they start with a headline. No, if they start with a generic topic that promises good things to come if I would just keep reading till they kinda get to the point, which of course will become evident at some later paragraph. Examples (names have been withheld to protect the innocent): “Water to Be Top Issue in 21st Century” (Really.) or “The Cloud in the Net” (Could you perhaps be just a little more specific?) .
Susan: Yes, but not frequently. Sometimes I go seeking for them on an institution’s website (AAAS EurekAlert!, NCAR, NOAA, NSF, and some university departments, etc.) when I’m looking for a subject, scientist, news peg, etc., for the science radio show I co-host, and less frequently when I’m looking for story ideas.
Bottom line: Different journalists are reading with different intent, but no matter what, your headline and first few sentences REALLY MATTER.
What kinds of things drive you crazy? Alan: Long, convoluted details about the research that shed more heat than light. Sweeping, unjustified claims about significance. Art that comes from Wikipedia or Flickr or Creative Commons (which we don’t have rights to publish without tracking down the creator).
Bryn: A little research might avoid several big pet peeves of mine. For example, I still receive press releases suggesting that I’m a staff writer at a publication for which I last wrote (as a freelancer) more than three years ago. And no, I don’t know who else you should carpet-bomb at the publication. Erik: The implicit agreement is that [you] will only send me stuff that is actually important. If you announce a new hire, it better be Al Gore or else I will feel like I have been tricked. When I feel tricked, I get vindictive and my finger uncontrollably gets pulled to “report spam.”
Hillary: Unwarranted hype. Or when I get a release that’s trying to capitalize on some other news to sell me on something totally unrelated. Or releases that have nothing to do with anything I cover. Susan: 1) Hyperbole. 2) Misleading claims. 3) Long-winded releases with a buried lede or no obvious point. 4) “You’ll like this” or something nearly as vague in the email header. I hit the delete button on these almost inevitably without opening the email. It smells like spam.
Bottom line: Don’t hype, don’t spam, don’t distort. Do make it easy for journalists to do their own reporting. Work to find the right balance of detail, context, and supporting material.
What is the one thing that scientists could do to most improve press releases about their work? Alan: Clear callouts to usable art, multiple phone numbers and other contact info for the relevant researchers, inclusion of titles or links to drafts of the papers, particularly if they’re not being published in Science/Nature/PNAS.
Bryn: If there’s one thing that scientists could do to improve releases, I would suggest that they first try to summarize their take-home message to an educated, non-scientist friend or relative before writing up the sales pitch. Use that discussion to ask: what makes the biggest impression on the listener? What’s confusing? Is a metaphor or example needed early on to help get the point across? That verbal interaction could really help refine the written title and lede; if your friend is unconvinced or bored by your sales pitch, chances are good that most of your target audience will be too. Ed: It still shocks me that many of them never get to see the releases that describe their work. If that’s the case, push for that because it’s your reputation at stake… To expand on that: press releases are out there. Permanently. They’re archived in Sciencedaily, Eurekalert, PhysOrg and many newspapers under different bylines. Sure, get more coverage for your science or your university or your journal, but recognize that these things are as much of the permanent academic record as any paper with your name on it. You have a moral obligation to make sure that they’re not full of tendentious crap… Hillary: Please try not to make the quotes in press releases so dry! When I see a dreadfully dry quote in a release, I make a mental note NOT to interview that person. Mark: Improve the top line of the release —which is often the email “subject” line as well, which is critical. Don’t think of this line as a title. Write it as if it were a Page 1 headline. You don’t need to have journalism training to do that. You see headlines every day. Think about why some get your attention and some don’t, then just mimic them.
Bottom line: Take responsibility for a release about your work, no matter who writes it. Make it not only clear but also compelling. Do the same thing for the title. Finally, make sure you think about the complete package, and put care and effort into getting all the accompanying information and materials right as well as the text of the release. To see the full text of interviews from these science writers on press releases, click here. Liz Neeley was Assistant Director of Science Outreach at COMPASS from 2008-2015. This post was transferred from its original location at www.compassonline.org to www.COMPASSscicomm.org, April 2017.
Image info: Image provided by Liz Neeley.