Press releases: Used and abused
Here is a very common question that I get from police chief and public information officer (PIO) types: "What is the appropriate use of press releases in police media relations?" Back in the '80s, when I owned a New York City metro public relations firm, the use of press releases were the staple of the much smaller media industry. But the rules have changed since then. This Police and the Press column covers how and when you should use press releases so that you do not use and abuse them or, for that matter, your media contacts.
Press releases have long been an area of confusion and even the right name is an elusive prey. Some prefer the traditional moniker of "press release," whereas I gravitate more to the use of the term "news release." The word "news" connotes information that is credible and worthy of a reader's (and hence the reporter's or assignment desk's) attention. "Press release" sounds like a puff piece generated by a publicity flack.
News releases can run the gamut from soft feature items, such as a police volunteer
of the month recognition program, to hard news stories, such as the release of the name of the deceased in a motor vehicle collision. The two types of releases feed off of each other and solidify your dealings with the media. That is especially helpful when a departmental crisis erupts and your established, positive relationship with the press can stave off negative publicity.
Identify message and target
Before even crafting your news release, you will need to identify what you want to say and then figure out who is your target audience. What is the message that you are trying to impart and who should get that message? Connecting with Internet captivated teenagers is different from elderly folks who tend to be larger readers of local, weekly hometown newspapers.
Researching your dissemination targets and appropriate distribution points to get the message out is key. You need to figure out whom you want to reach and how to communicate your message.
More traditional releases are appropriate when trying to reach a more mature audience that has long established channels of information gathering. Younger people have non-traditional sources for their information, such as the Internet. News releases for the Internet tend to be shorter reflecting on-screen reading habits and shortened attention spans.
One key media outlet that has been mentioned, hometown weekly newspapers, has long been a target rich environment for older town residents. They are very interested in what their neighbors and their law enforcement agency are up to.
Weekly papers and their brethren are ideal for static stories that are not likely to change and do not have a pressing time deadlines. A story on an upcoming Citizens Police Academy or the release of a department's annual report are but two of many examples that could fit into this format.
These venues look for releases that are complete and can function as stand alone articles. Short-staffed, budget-strapped, and over-worked, weekly papers love to print these releases in their entirety. It is important to adhere to good journalistic principles, as well as to copy the writing style of your target paper. Customization is important, as one size does not fit all publications. And don't forget smaller monthly or alternative format publications in your area.
Daily newspapers are larger operations that tend to do more of their published material with in-house staff reporters. Your releases for these media folks should be a little shorter than that employed for the weekly and monthly outlets. The news release should give them just enough information so that they will want to create a feature story highlighting your agency's news or initiative.
The news release will need to be clear why the information is newsworthy and also why it should be covered now. DUI prevention and enforcement around New Year's Eve is an example of a story where timing is key.
Local radio stations are also a good place to contact to get your message out. Even with low wattage, local radio hosts engender a fiercely loyal following. They function in short sound bites so short news releases are more appropriate for them, although producing an audio news release for them is another option.
Internet radio is a new and often overlooked medium. Many people in your city most likely have lunched their own radio stations given the economic feasibility of the Internet. The audience tends to be larger, and certainly younger, than you might think.
The short news release is probably the better route as it may lead to an invitation into the radio station's studios. If you handle it correctly, you may be able to springboard into longer format live interviews with listener phone call segments.
Broadcast television stations that cover your area are but another distribution points for your news release. In the TV venue, you are again looking to produce short, soundbite quality nuggets of information. Public service announcement (PSAs) are classic examples.
Local cable TV systems often have a public access channel with programming geared to local matters. You should watch these sometimes roughly produced local talk shows to see if you fit in as a guest to tout the topic of your release. The hosts may be a bit eccentric, but a little preparation will help you to manage the interview. Showcasing your agency's new K-9 team is a good visual image that works well in a TV studio.
Local text information cable TV channels should also be targets of your customized releases. They need a steady diet of information to put on the screen, but the information should be put in a bullet point format or other style that they use. You want to make it easy for them to load the information into the chyron and put on the screen. Date and time specific events, such as National Night Out, work well in this outlet.
If you want to reach younger people, do not overlook campus based high school and college newspapers. Make sure that their targeted news release features something that would be of interest to their readers. Two examples might be a new Corvette marked police car recently confiscated from a drug dealer and a police initiative to enforce underage and prom night drinking issues.
The danger of working with young reporters is their lack of experience and tendency to interject their own preconceived notions into the article. A detailed news release that leaves little room for conjecture, along with your personal contact with the adult faculty newspaper advisor, should alleviate that problem.
News release distribution
Once you have identified your target market media distribution points and crafted your customized news release, you will need to decide how to actually get the material to them. It used to be that all releases went via "snail mail." Nowadays, some reporters only deal in email. On the flip side, other reporters have found their inboxes clogged with releases and end up deleting or routing them to bulk mail folders. Still others like FAXes. You will need to make a few contacts to see how each target outlet wants to receive their information.
After the releases are sent out, a follow-up system should come into play. Press folks, especially those at larger media outlets, get inundated with releases of different types. You have a built in advantage as a representative of the local police or sheriff's department. You are engaged in public service and everyone is interested in the police. Just look at the huge prime-time TV line up of crime shows.
Time when to call the media representative for your release follow-up. Deadlines are a major issue for these people. Generally speaking, newspapers are best called before lunch and far away from afternoon article deadlines. Radio people need to be called during that small window when they get off the air. TV folks tend to be more receptive when you reach them in the early afternoon before they get ready for their evening news broadcasts.
Don't start off by asking them if they got the release. The better approach involves asking them if they need any other information. It's a polite way to remind them of the release that they may have only glanced out earlier, but has some good story potential for them. Make written notes for requests to contact them again the next day and the like.
News releases are handy as supplements to a formal press conference or field-based press briefing. Solid information, such as the spelling of a suspect's name or a lost child's full description, can be given out with the chance of reporting error minimized. The hard copy new release you hand out eliminates the need for the reporter to quickly scribble down information that may be read erroneously later at his or her newsroom computer terminal.
Reporters, especially those television journalists looking for visual images, will appreciate you standing up and talking to them, while still providing the news release that gives them an easy and convenient way of getting the nitty-gritty information.
Most media types will be responsive to you. As stated previously, you represent local law enforcement and are an important source of the press' bread and butter: news. They need you as much as you need them. A good, customized and targeted news release can be the genesis of a positive relationship.