This article, written by Michele Dunaway is from the June 2020 edition of Nink, the monthly newsletter of Novelists, Inc. (NINC). Nink, which is packed each month with informative articles for career novelists, is a benefit of NINC membership.
In a previous installment, we worked on the idea of your “Home Base” or your key message. This concept revolves around the idea that you don’t have to hire an expensive public relations firm to be able to stay on message with the media, and that with a little work, you can develop and disseminate your own talking points.
In this article we’re going to focus on what really matters when you write a press release. What we won’t focus on is stuff you can learn when you go online and Google “press release samples.” When you do that, dozens of images are going to pop up and they will tell you exactly what needs to go where. They’ll tell you what you need to include and give you sample formats where you can slot your words right into the fields of headlines and body copy and contact information. Easy peasy. Poof.
You’re done… only to have your hard work sent off and immediately deleted and discarded. After all, how many pieces of email come into your inbox only to be deleted unread? How many newsletters do you send to your readers that do not get opened, or if opened, are not really read or converted into sales?
Before we go on, I’m going to send you to this site. Seriously. Go read it. Or give it a quick skim.
While all that information is relevant and important, you probably overlooked one line that seemed like a throwaway: “Don’t waste the journalist’s time with a long-winded, self-absorbed introduction to yourself or your business. They probably don’t care.”
I’m going to repeat that last part: “They probably don’t care.” It’s tough to hear, but true.
What’s in it for them?
I ask my high-school journalists two critical questions when I’m coaching them on writing their news and feature stories: “Are you bored writing this?” and “Why should the reader care?”
Think about it. Every year there is a homecoming dance. Every year there’s a varsity football team. Every year there are final exams. School starts sometime in August. Graduation is always the first Saturday of May. For 17 years, I’ve guided my students through the creation of award-winning yearbooks. We know, every year, we’re going to cover the exact same stuff.
So do newspapers. There will be the sweet stories published on Valentine’s Day. There’s all the election coverage that ramps up every two and four years. 2020 was a leap year, and of course a story on leap year babies ran. The same principle applies for magazines. Fashion follows a cycle, so does sports, so does gardening, etc.
Your book release is one of all the other book releases out there, and with the advent of self-publishing, the noise of those wanting to be noticed is even louder. In order to get the press you want, to get to that interview stage or to get your press release to simply be printed almost verbatim if the media doesn’t have time for anything else, the content has to make the reader care. In Part I of this series published last month, this all boiled down to answering the simple question the consumer wants to know: “What’s in it for me?”
Your message map keeps you on point. However, when you looked at the sample, were you bored? Did you care? Most likely no, you didn’t care.
Pretend you’re a journalist. If University of Missouri Extension sent you a press release about one of their programs, you would look at it because you had to look at it, not because you think it’s the most exciting thing on the planet to receive.
As much as our latest book is the most exciting thing on the planet to us, it’s not necessarily the most exciting thing for everyone else. So, as the next part of your media message, you have to figure out how to make your message the most exciting thing.
Making them care
Let me digress with an example that I promise will make sense, so bear with me and please keep reading. I teach Walt Whitman, who is considered one of the most important American poets ever. Except if you’re a high-school junior in regular English III. However, I usually introduce Whitman in the last week of January/first week of February, right around the Super Bowl. Spoiler: high-school kids are into the Super Bowl. So I ask how much does a Super Bowl commercial cost for 30 minutes? (Someone will know. They always do.) Okay, I say, Apple made this commercial a while ago and not only paid for a minute and a half or airtime (we calculate that amount in today’s dollar value), but then they had to get the rights to the voice-over you’ll hear and then film and edit it.
Then I play the commercial. Take a minute and a half and go watch how Apple introduced the iPad Air.
Kids all know Apple. They have iPhones and iPads. Some may know Dead Poets Society, and most still know Robin Williams. And let’s face it, it’s a pretty awesome commercial with excellent visuals.
By the end of the commercial, it’s clear that Apple made Walt Whitman cool again, and I let my students know that when this commercial came out, all over Twitter people were like “That’s Robin Williams’s voice” and others were “That’s Dead Poet’s Society.” We talk about how Apple built an entire campaign around the slogan “What will your verse be?” (which excites all the kids who like business class best) and how the campaign went beyond the Super Bowl. Suddenly Whitman is relevant again, and “O Me! O Life!” suddenly matters.
To get people talking, you have to make them care. You have to show them why it matters to them. The secret to making them care all comes down to this: Stories are about people, not things or events.
Your book launch is an event. Your book is a thing. You are the real story.
So how do you make the story about you, while still talking about your book and its launch? You have to find the hook that makes the reader care.
Your company has its message, but now that message must translate into newsworthiness. When editors decide what to cover, they look at various elements that make the story newsworthy.
Newsworthy elements include but are not limited to:
- Celebrity and prominence: How famous or important a person is. The more famous, the more attention.
- Conflict and impact: As writers we understand conflict and how it will impact or effect people.
- Emotion: Emotion means the story pulls on your heartstrings. Think of the old adage “if it bleeds, it leads.” Blood, tears, and laughter get attention because we feel them in a visceral way.
- Proximity and timeliness: Proximity means we care because it’s close or local, while timeliness means the story matters now and has a sense of immediacy.
- Novelty and unusualness: Novelty means it’s different, while unusualness might mean it’s weird or odd—like the guy who at ate 20 hot dogs in one minute.
- Human interest: Human interest is a bit of a catchall, but it’s understandable as to why we love stories about puppies, kids with lemonade stands, a girl who conquers cancer, or why we want to help when we read about those who need help.
Looking at each of these elements is how my yearbook staff and I find a new and different angle for the stories that are essentially the same event each year. Like the books you write, the characters are different. Stories are about people, not events or things.
The unique hook I often use is “teacher by day, romance writer by night.” It’s novelty. When I spoke at the Kirkwood Public Library, the press release played up I was a local native, so proximity. The article began: Twenty years ago, author Michele Dunaway was shelving books at Kirkwood Library for $2 an hour. Now the library has all seven of her books on hand and Dunaway is the library's June "Author of the Month." You can read the rest here.
Finding your hook
Now go back to your message map. Your hooks, your newsworthiness, should come from your positive, proof-positive, and more specifically, your distinguishing points. Your distinguishing points should explain how you are different from everyone else. This is your newsworthiness. What can you do to hook the person who will receive your press release? What can you do to make them care about you? Or be intrigued? Or curious?
Your uniqueness is what makes the reader care and why they will want to know more. There are tons of authors putting out books. So what makes your story the one that should be told? How can you sell them that writing about you is a different approach to the same old story?
Here’s an example from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Jan. 19, 2018, the fifth anniversary of the death of Stan Musial, baseball Hall of Famer, the first million-dollar player, and a St. Louis icon. The challenge for the reporter was how to find a new angle to commemorate the day of his death. Ben Frederickson started his story like this:
Swap a Stan Musial story today.
If you don’t have one, hear one.
It’s not hard.
You can’t throw a four-seamer in this city without hitting the glove of someone with one to share.
On the five-year anniversary of the day we lost “Baseball’s Perfect Knight,” find a moment to remember what made him so much bigger than the game.
I’ll go first.
Leo and Jane Garvin can’t forget their Musial story, because without Stan, there wouldn’t be a Leo and Jane.
Trust me, go read the rest of the story, hyperlinked under the word read. I’ll wait.
Now that you have, I’ll let you in on a little secret. Jane is my late father’s sister. Leo’s my uncle, and Patrick is my cousin. I don’t know Ben. I knew about the birthday party, but not about the fact there wouldn’t be Leo and Jane without Stan.
I had a reason to care when I read this article. But did you care? This story has emotion, human interest, and celebrity. If you said yes, if you kept reading even if you didn’t know Leo and Jane, or if you found yourself finding yourself thinking “this was cool,” even though you aren’t a St. Louis Cardinals fan, this is because the story is about people (Stan, Leo & Jane), not events (in this case, the anniversary of Stan’s death).
When you craft your press release, when you write your story, if you are bored, the person reading it will be, too. The secret to a successful press release is figuring out how to make the reader care, so don’t be afraid to dig deep and focus on you. Trust me, your story is worth telling.
Michele Dunaway is in her final year as the Nink editor. Writing press releases and giving interviews don’t scare her. The fact that her term is almost over and she’ll really miss doing Nink does.