A journalist’s pet peeves about press releases

by Guest Author on August 26, 2011

This is a guest post by Charles Day from Physics Today.

Rest assured, PIOs! This is a short piece. As a science writer and editor, I have little to complain about your work and much to praise. Still, as a consumer of one of your principal products, the press release, I thought you might appreciate some constructive criticism in the form of dos and don’ts.

1. Do use long descriptive titles

I view most press releases either as email or on websites such as EurekAlert. In both cases, my first encounter is with the title in a long list of other titles. Ideally, the title or subject line should contain enough information for me to decide whether the release is relevant to my publication and newsworthy to my readers. Here’s a good example pulled from EurekAlert:

Common Bacterium Stops Mosquitoes from Transmitting Dengue Virus

And here’s a self-evidently bad example, also from EurekAlert

Protecting Cells

Keep in mind that as a journalist, I don’t much care where a press release comes from. The topic is paramount. So when you write your titles and subject lines, don’t waste precious words by including the name of the institution. On EurekAlert, the name appears beneath the title. In email, the name is in the “from” field. Lawrence Berkeley National Lab is a prime subject-line offender. Here’s how much of one recent release’s subject line appeared in my inbox window:

Berkeley Lab news release:Berkeley Lab Opens Advance

2. Don’t impose your own press embargoes

Nature, Science, NASA and other organizations impose press embargoes. You and I have to respect their embargoes whether we like them or not. But if you impose your own embargoes, you could jeopardize coverage. To keep up with the stream of press releases, journalists have to decide what to do with each one as it arrives. An embargo acts like an instruction that says “put aside until later.” But by the time “later” comes, I’ve seen some more releases that I could act on right away.

3. Do provide a convenient means to access the original paper

A large number of science journalists used to be scientists themselves. If a press release looks interesting, they’ll like to read the original paper. So please provide a link to the corresponding PDF. I realize that some journals won’t allow you to do so, but if you work for a publisher, you have no excuse. You have the PDFs. Why does this matter? Keep in mind that a journalist has to write about a piece ofnewsworthy research, but not necessarily your piece of newsworthy research. Any step that makes it harder for a journalist to write a story could result in him or her writing about a different story.

4. Don’t get too fancy with HTML and graphics in emails

Graphics-rich emails look great on the big-screen iMac in my office. They look awful on my BlackBerry, which I use when I’m out of the office and need to stay on top of the press release torrent. Plain text with a few HTML links works best. If the main subject of your press release is an image–often the case in astronomy–then please don’t put it in the body of an email. And please don’t, as is the practice of the European Space Agency, send out a one-sentence email that invites journalists to click on a link to get the full release. Just put all the text in the email.

5. Do put your press releases online

Twitter, Facebook and other social media make it easy to share links. It might seem like an odd idea, but you should include a link to a press release in the press release itself. I can’t write about every press release I receive, but I do share links to some of them on Physics Today‘s Facebook page. My goal is to inform my readers about interesting research. Your goal is to promote your institutions. We both win when press releases are easily sharable.

6. Do keep up the good work!

Charles Day is Physics Today‘s online editor. Before he joined the magazine’s editorial staff in 1997, he was an X-ray astronomer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

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  • http://gplus.to/wraillantclark William Raillant-Clark

    These rules are great when sending press releases to science journalists, but the reality is that most public information officers are also working with a variety of outlets ranging from national television to the local freebee to website content aggregators. I think from a PIO point-of-view, the takeaway message is feel free to adapt your press releases for different media outlets.

  • Mike McG

    Pet peeves…. black type on a blue background on a website. Hard to read!

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