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The 5 w questions revisited

At its heart, good PR is storytelling.  But PR’s who rigidly follow the ‘5 w’  inverted pyramid approach for writing press releases can end up putting their organisation’s story into a straightjacket. The structure is too regimented.  And it can restrain the writer, leaving the story nowhere to go.

Why are PR’s encouraged to write news releases by highlighting the key who, what, where, why, when (and sometimes how) questions in the lead paragraph? This practice was born in an era when a release could be printed and cut from the bottom if space was limited.

Bring the news hook into the lead

Whilst it can be a useful discipline for information gathering, I’ve found that rigidly describing who the organisation is and what it is announcing/launching, when and where stops the writer thinking more creatively about the story.  And the real news hook or ‘peg’ may be hidden in the body of the release  –  or even be totally lacking.

Many press releases are weak

The reality is that most press releases are not strong stories.  Yes, they might be to the organisation issuing the story. But to many news media, they can appear as propaganda or ‘PR puff’. Many start with the name of the organisation and what it is announcing/launching and when.  But the subject of a good story is almost never the organisation that is sending out the release (unless the story is a business-to-business one) as Bill Stoller demonstrates.

Make it pass the ‘so what?’ test

A more newsworthy story could be who is benefiting from the launch and what it is.  So, a better approach might be to think outside the when who is launching what, where and why approach and identify who is benefiting and why or what does this mean within the broader context.

Here’s an example of how this might work in practice.

The traditional approach places the organisation at the lead of the story and undermines the purpose of the story.  In doing so, it fails to answer the ‘so what?’ question asked by many journalists.

FA launches anti-abuse ‘Respect’ campaign

The Football Association is targeting fans by launching a ‘Respect’ programme on 17 August 2013 to help kick abuse out of football.  This aims to change this culture of bullying referees by encouraging fans to pledge to a code of practice and become ‘Respect’ fans.

Making the who of the story about the football fans and highlighting the shortage of referees  sets the story in context and gives it broader news appeal.

FA tackles abuse of referees

Football fans are being urged to show more respect to referees through a Football Association campaign which aims to stamp out bullying on the pitch.

According to the Football Association, grass roots football is at risk due a shortage of referees. Last season, 7,000 referees quit football after receiving abuse on the pitch, leaving many matches without a games official.
The ‘Respect’ campaign launches on 17 August 2013 and encourages fans to pledge to a code of practice and become ‘Respect’ fans.  

See it from a journalist perspective

PR’s should put themselves into the journalist’s shoes whose job it is to tell stories. PR Newswire’s Sarah Sherik suggests four ways to incorporate story telling into a press release.

Dig beneath the 5 W questions

I find it helps if I interrogate the brief first by going beyond the initial answers to the 5 w facts to find out how these answers relate to broader issues and people.  I’ll often do some desk research.

Refer to ‘news value’ list

I might refer to a ‘news values’ list as a helpful reminder of popular hooks

Human interest – involve people in the story
Timeliness – what makes this story so relevant to ‘now’
Prominence – involve a highly visual element, known person or expert
Significance – add facts, statistics or link to trends
Proximity – give the story a local or specialist angle close to the reader’s heart
Bizarre – is there something unusual I can highlight?
Impact – how can I give this story broad appeal (put it into context)?
Significance – can I link my story to events that are significant and being talked about now?
Conflict – can I add controversy?
Everyday problems – can I link the story to popular themes/subjects such as politics, money, health, education, safety.

I hope that this helps you when you are writing your next press release. What else do you do when writing for PR?

Here’s a simple guide to how to write a press release in 20 minutes. What else do you do when writing for PR?

I cover this topic in my Writing Press Release course and if you’d like to find out more, then do get in touch.

Picture courtesy of Angelo Amboldi Flickr creative commons



Thanks for sharing this blog post, some fantastic tips!

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