How to Write a Press Release for Your Non-Profit
Last fall, I helped a Girl Scout leader write a press release about a Brownie who saved her brother’s life and was awarded the Girl Scout Medal of Honor. It isn’t the first time I’ve volunteered to help pull together a press release. In fact, it’s a fairly common request.
When we finished the press release, the leader asked me if I would teach a class on the topic for Girl Scout leaders who wanted coverage. The problem with a class is that you probably won’t remember what I said by the time you need the information. So, I’m opting for a blog post, instead.
While I wrote this for Girl Scout leaders who are planning events and showcasing their Girl Scouts’ achievements, I also wrote this article to be useful to other non-profit volunteers and staff. If you work with a non-profit that doesn’t have public relations professionals on staff and doesn’t have access to an agency, this article is for you.
I should also note that I am not a public relations professional. At one time, I managed media relations for my employer. However, in the past 19 years, my focus has been more strategic. I recommend public relations approaches in conjunction with broader marketing strategies, and I hire and manage public relations professionals, but I don’t do the work myself. So, in order to make sure the information here is current and accurate, I tapped two friends who currently do this for a living:
- Stefanie Ellis, PR Director, Girl Scouts of Western Washington
- Teresa Wippel, Publisher, My Neighborhood News Network
They’ve given this article their seal of approval.
Step One: Set Your Goals
Before you start putting words on paper or reaching out to reporters, it’s important to understand who you want to reach, what you want them to know or do as a result, and what message they need to hear to take action. This will define which media you should approach and what message you will deliver.
What Do You Want to Accomplish?
Begin by clearly defining what you want to accomplish. Do you want people to attend an event? Or are you trying to get them to change their behavior in some way? Or do you simply want them to know something about the tremendous impact you make?
Be specific. How many people are you hoping to reach? What, specifically, do you want them to do differently? Why will they care about the impact you’re making?
Here are some good examples of goals you might set:
- We want 100 people from the community to attend our earthquake preparedness class.
- Our goal is to increase the number of households with earthquake preparedness kits by 25%.
- We want to increase awareness about the risks associated with earthquakes by driving people to our updated website.
Avoid routine operational updates and other information that isn’t particularly interesting to the public. For example, my company has often been asked to prepare a press release following a website redesign. While this is often a big accomplishment to the organization, it isn’t something about which the broader community will care. This type of information should be left for donor/member/supporter newsletters and similar communications.
Who Do You Want to Reach?
Some organizations try to make a broad sweep of media when they really only need visibility within a small segment of the population. Since reporters won’t cover something that doesn’t have value to their readers, pitching media who don’t reach that audience wastes their time and yours. When you consider which audiences you are trying to reach, think about who is likely to take action relative to your goals.
In the case of an event, consider how far people are likely to travel to attend something like what you are offering, whether there are similar events in surrounding areas, and whether the event will appeal to a narrow audience. For example, a school holiday fair will appeal most to the people who are in the immediate area and feel some connection to the school. In addition, other schools are likely to be hosting similar events, perhaps on the same days. Your audience will probably be local.
On the other hand, if you are trying to encourage kids to increase their exercise levels by joining a challenge you’ve added to your non-profit website, the program might have regional or even national interest. Of course, it won’t be relevant to single adults, parents of kids who are too young, or parents whose kids have left the house. Your audience may be broader, but will only consist of a sub-section of the entire population.
What Do They Need to Know?
Reporters are busy people. They don’t need all the details in your press release. They need the most important points.
If it’s an event, you’ll need succinct answers to the “who, when, why, what, where” questions. If your goal is to drive another behavior, outline the three to five messages that the audience will find most compelling. These should be just one sentence long.
For example, let’s say you are a Girl Scout pursuing your Gold Award, the highest award a Girl Scout can achieve. You have created a website that lists the items each person should have on hand in case of an earthquake, and your goal is to get 250 people in the Pacific Northwest to take the first step toward preparedness. Your three to five messages might include:
- The Pacific Northwest is overdue for a major earthquake.
- When a major earthquake hits, you will be without food, electricity, medical care and potentially shelter for up to three weeks.
- To be prepared, you should have a complete emergency kit at home, at your place of work, and in every car.
- You can find a list of what should be included at [the website page that includes your list].
- Help me complete my Gold Award by signing my “I’m Ready!” online guest book letting me know you took action.
Step Two: Make Your Media List
Now that you know who you want to reach, it’s time to identify the media sources that serve them. Depending on the amount of time you have, the type of news you are hoping to distribute, and your audience, you should consider:
- Traditional media, including local newspapers and magazines
- Digital media, including news websites
- Broadcast media, including radio and television
- Bloggers who target your audience
- Social media groups who target your audience
- Organization-specific media, such as newsletters published by schools or other non-profits
Include both the name of the media outlet and the name of the reporter who covers this type of news. For example, a larger newspaper might have a reporter who covers activities in a certain geography or that relate to a certain topic (like education or human services).
Step Three: Check Your Organization’s PR Guidelines
If you are a small organization, you can probably skip this step. However, if you are affiliated with a larger organization, you should make sure you are complying with the organization’s public relations policies.
For example, Girl Scouts of Western Washington has a Girl Scout PR Handbook. (For my Girl Scout friends who are reading this, you can find it here.) The guidelines specify that local troops can contact local media, but that requests of major media outlets must be managed in coordination with the PR Director.
Your parent organization may also want you to send links or copies to the main office so that media coverage can be tracked. Girl Scouts of Western Washington likes to know about coverage, just in case they miss something in the large area the Council covers.
Step Four: Choose a Format
The days of the press release faxed to the news outlet are gone. Most press releases are embedded in the body of the email to the reporter, and some news doesn’t require a press release at all!
The approach you will take to communicate to the media will depend on what you want to communicate, and the type of media to whom you are communicating.
Here’s a quick chart to help you decide what approach to take:
|Type of News||Type of Media||Recommended Approach|
|An Event||Community Calendar in most print media, including online||Email only
Email with a press release embedded at the end of the email
|Public Service Announcement||Broadcast (radio and television)||Email with an embedded press release including sample copy|
|Story other than event||All||Email with embedded press release|
Step Five: Write Your Press Release
If you plan to use a press release, there is a traditional format in which information is delivered. The press release below is one that was written by a Girl Scout in my daughter’s troop, and it follows the standard format.
Let’s tackle the release one section at a time:
A: Release Date
In most cases, you will want a reporter to cover a story as soon as possible. Reporters want to know what will happen before it happens. And if you’re trying to prompt a specific behavior, your target audience needs time to hear about what you are doing and respond. So, in most cases, you will write “FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE” (in all caps) and the date you send the press release out in the release date space.
There are some cases in which you might want the reporter to hold off on reporting the information. In that case, you’ll write “UNDER EMBARGO UNTIL:” and add a specific date and time. You should know that many reporters will not respect embargos. However, they can be useful. For example, if you are a health research organization whose most recent discovery is still in the process of peer review, an embargoed press release can give a reporter a chance to study the discovery, interview key team members with busy schedules, and prepare a story for release when the approval process is complete.
Stephanie Ellis, the PR Director at Girl Scouts of Western Washington, told me that she only uses an embargo with reporters she knows and trusts. Even then, there are no guarantees.
B: Contact Information
Under the title “FOR MORE INFORMATION,” include the name and contact information for the person who will be the touch point for reporters. Contact information includes their name, phone number, email address, fax number (if they have one), and website address for your organization.
Many larger organizations have a designated spokesperson, either a communications professional or an executive. If this isn’t your case, choose someone who is knowledgeable, thoughtful and responsive. If a reporter calls, they need someone who will pick up the phone right away or return a message promptly and track down information they need. When their call is answered, you will want someone who is careful in their choice of words to make sure your organization is accurately represented.
Your headline needs to capture a reporter’s attention. They receive hundreds, even thousands, of press releases each day. To avoid becoming a deleted document, yours needs to make them interested enough to read on.
Many public relations professionals write the headline last. As you craft the body of your press release, a great idea might strike you. Think about your headline as if you were writing a Tweet. Would what you are saying be enough to get you to click on the link? If so, you’re probably on the right track.
Need some headline writing ideas? Here are a few additional resources to review:
- 10 Knock-Their-Socks-Off Headline Writing Tips, by Susan Payton, for Cision
- How to Write Press Release Headlines that People Actually Read, by Pamela Keniston, for Marx Communications
You can also use a sub-header to elaborate on the headline. This is a second headline that elaborates on the first. It is typically printed in italics, and is not in bold-face, like the headline. For an example, look at this press release from The Alley Theatre in Houston:
D: First Paragraph
Remember those messages in Step One? This is where they become important.
Your first paragraph should be a brief but engaging introduction to your topic and why it is important. It should be easy to read, two to three sentences long, and written as if it is the introduction to the article you want your reporter to write. After all, many reporters will simply print your press release as written, if they like it. You should write this paragraph to be the one you’d like to see in the press.
You might notice that the press release I use as an example includes the city and state in all capitals at the beginning of the first paragraph. However, Teresa Wippel, publisher of My Neighborhood News Network, says that this element, called a dateline, is largely obsolete. You don’t need to include it in your press release.
E: Body of the Press Release
After the first paragraph, you should prioritize the information you need to present. The most important information should be first.
If your press release is about an event, your second paragraph should include (and even repeat) key information about who, when, why, what and where from your first paragraph. In a press release on other topics, this paragraph could be used to provide compelling facts that help persuade the reader to take action, or additional information about the issue you identified in the first paragraph. The rest of the press release should cover the key messages you identified in Step One.
I also recommend including quotes to make the story more interesting. Quotes from respected people who know about your topic are most likely to resonate with the press. For example, if your Girl Scout troop is building an interpretive trail in a park, you might include a quote from the park superintendent. If you are hosting an event to raise money to install AEDs at a local baseball field, you might ask someone from the Fire Department or the head of cardiology at the nearest hospital to talk about how many lives the investment will save.
When I ask someone for a quote, I usually provide an example of what I would like them to say. That way, I know they’ll touch on something important to the story that helps me make my case. Most people appreciate this, as it gives them guidance. In fact, most people will generally approve what you write or make minor edits. If they don’t like it, they’ll write something else!
If you have pictures available, include them or indicate that you have them available! Reporters love to use photos to illustrate stories.
Teresa Wippel, Publisher of My Neighborhood News Network, requests that you resize the image to a smaller format when you send them so that they are more easily to transfer via email. You can make a note that high-resolution images are available for print publications that may want them.
She also asks that any images be attached as separate documents, rather than embedded within a release or an email. It saves the reporter time, and improves the likelihood the image will arrive in good shape.
If you are using a photo (or even the name) of a minor, make sure you have written permission to use it in a story. If you work with a youth organization, such as Girl Scouts, they may have specific guidance on use of a minor’s full name or the means in which you must gather permission from parents or guardians.
The Girl Scouts of Western Washington use this form to request permission from non-members AND all minors, including Girl Scout members. They also ask that press releases use the first name and last initial, rather than the full name, of Girl Scouts who are minors.
Wrapping it Up
When I first started writing press releases, I always struggled with the ending. I was accustomed to writing a conclusion or summary at the end of academic and business documents. Press releases, I discovered, are different. You don’t need a conclusion. While it may seem like the article ends rather abruptly, it is better to keep the content short and succinct than to repeat it unnecessarily at the end. If you don’t believe me, read a few articles in the newspaper and notice how they end. Your press release should mimic the same approach.
After you have finished drafting the first paragraph and body (and written your headline), read through it. Do you cover all of the messages you outlined in Step One? Does it sound compelling? Would you want to read the press release if it were printed directly as a story? If you answer yes to these three questions, you are probably in great shape!
F: For 2 Pages …
Stefanie Ellis, PR Director with the Girl Scouts of Western Washington, says she tries never to have a press release exceed one page in length. In general, short and to the point is better than long. The reporter can always circle back and request more information.
When you write out your press release in a Google doc or Word document, your press release should be formatted with paragraphs that are double-spaced, or at least space-and-a-half. For many press releases, this means it is likely to extend beyond a single page.
If you want to print a paper version of the release, you should write “-MORE-“ at the bottom of the first page (in bold), and include the press release headline and date at the top of the second page.
However, most press releases will simply be copied and pasted from your document into an email. At this point, the “-MORE-“ can be eliminated.
The About section of the press release includes background information about your organization. Many organizations have a standard paragraph they include. If your organization has issued press releases in the past, you may be able to find copy on your organization’s “news” page, in communications guidelines, or in a key messaging document.
If your organization is small or has never issued a press release, write a single paragraph that describes your organization, who you serve, and how you serve them. For examples, review the About sections in the following press releases:
H: The End
At the end of the press release, it is customary to indicate that the reporter has the full press release by including three hashmarks, “###,” or the word “-END-.“
Step Six: Write Your Cover Email
These days, most press releases are submitted to media via email. The introduction email should be brief, and must be crafted with the same thoughtfulness you put into your press release. At the end of your introduction, paste your complete press release into the email.
Your email subject line can be the headline from your press release, or any short, eye-catching phrase that will encourage the reporter to open your email. Think about what you’re writing as if you are composing a Tweet. It should be short, sweet and compelling. It can be the same as the title of your press release.
Always address an email to an individual reporter, if you can. After all, how often do you read a letter that comes addressed to “Resident”?
Your copy should be short and to the point. Limit what you write to two to three paragraphs, and make sure your contact information appears clearly at the end of the message.
If you have written a press release, you should copy and paste the entire press release into the email after your signature line. This way, the reporter can see the entire text easily without opening an attachment. You do not need to attach it as a document. However, you should attach any images as separate documents, rather than embedding them in the email.
If your message is about an event and you simply want a calendar listing, you may not have a press release to attach. In this case. The important details should be very clearly spelled out for the reporter. Don’t make them hunt through copy to get to the information you want them to include in their listing!
Girl Scouts of Western Washington’s PR Guidelines includes this sample email without a press release:
Subject: A Truly Sweet Contest Using Girl Scout Cookies!
It’s our third year sponsoring the Girl Scout Cookie Recipe Contest, and we’ve got some interesting contenders! How about a coconut cream-filled Samoa croissant donut pitted against a baklava-inspired dessert made with crushed Trefoils, honey and walnuts? There’s also a Samoas no-bake cheesecake, a raspberry streusel bar and a clever Trefoil cookie butter.
Voting can be done here, now through February 27. Our top winner gets $250, cookies and super-sweet bragging rights. I’d love it if you told your audience about this fun contest! It’s a great way to get the community talking about our upcoming Girl Scout Cookie Sale February 28-March 16!
I wrote this one to accompany a press release drafted by four Girl Scouts in my daughter’s troop to announce the completion of their Silver Award project:
Subject: Four 13-Year-Old Girl Scouts Install Interpretive New Trail at Lynndale Park
I’m writing on behalf of my daughter and 3 of her sister Girl Scouts. The four are all 7th graders at Meadowdale Middle School in Lynnwood.
Last year, they decided that Lynndale Park, in Lynnwood, needed signs to help visitors identify native plants. They spent 9 months developing a proposal for presentation to the City of Lynnwood, and have spent the last four months executing on that plan. The installation is this weekend, and the ribbon-cutting, with Lynnwood Mayor Smith, is on Saturday the 18th.
They wrote the press release below and have asked me to get the word out on their behalf.
Please let me know if you have any questions.
Girl Scout Cadette Troop 41002
[Contact information here, press release copy below.]
Step 7: Send It Out!
You’re ready! It’s time to send out your emails and press releases.
In most cases, you should send all emails out at about the same time. This allows everyone an equal opportunity to cover your story.
Be sure that you (or the person who is your media contact) is ready to respond to calls as soon as the email goes out. While you might not hear anything for some time, you may also get immediate interest!
Don’t be surprised if you don’t hear anything for a while (or at all), especially if the topic is a calendar item or an announcement of new board members or a promotion. In many cases, routine items like these that appear in a specific section of the newspaper will simply be run when they have space and time.
Even if you are trying to get story coverage, a delayed response doesn’t mean you won’t get coverage! For example, with the press release I used as an example for this article, one publication didn’t get back to us at all. However, the day of the event, they sent a photographer and the publication ran a very prominent story!
Remember, the media loves to cover exciting news about things that are happening in their community. You just need to give them something interesting to say.
Writing a press release and getting coverage takes some thought, some time and some creativity, but the rewards are infinite.
By the way, the press release I used as an example was written by a 9-year-old Girl Scout, not by me. One of the editors I spoke with was so impressed with her writing that she asked the Girl Scout to author an article in her publication. In fact, that article is the one featured in the photo in this post. Clearly, she had guidance with her press release, just as you do with this article! She also wrote a number of drafts before finalizing the copy. My point is that if she can do it, you can too!
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