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PR With a Secular Spin: How to Write a Press Release

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By Duncan Crary - former Director of Communications for the Institute for Humanist Studies

The religious right learned how to do PR a long time ago. And look where it got them.

It's time for secularists to catch up.

Here's a crash course in how to write a press release. This is the easiest way to get your news and views into the mainstream media.

A press release:

  • is a formal "news tip" that is emailed, faxed and sometimes mailed to newsrooms;
  • should read like a short newspaper article;
  • contains a headline, contact information, a summary paragraph and some direct quotations from the people involved in the story
  • should be no longer than 450 words.

Most of you will be sending your press release by email. So let's start with that format.

The Subject Line

The subject line of your email press release is the single most important thing you will write. Your subject line needs to be concise, catchy and accurate. If it's not all three, it may be the only thing the newsroom reads.

Try reading the tabloid headlines in the supermarket checkout. Say what you will about those publications, they have the best headlines!

The subject line of every press release you send should begin with the word "RELEASE:" followed by a very short headline.

Here are three examples:

RELEASE: Do Atheists Celebrate Xmas?

RELEASE: Students Celebrate B'Day Of Evolution Champ"

RELEASE: OSU Agnostics Say No To Faith-based Funding

You can tweak your subject line to suit your needs. But remember this:

  • Emails with vague subject lines, like "Hi," are considered spam and go immediately into the trash without being read.
  • Only about five or six words will display in most people's email inbox subject line.
  • Newsrooms receive hundreds of emails a day with just a two-word subject: "Press Release." That's concise, but it's not catchy or accurate enough.

Info:

The first three lines of information in the body of your email should always include:

  • The date
  • For Release: Immediately Upon Receipt
  • Contact: (name, phone number, email address)

The Headline

OK. Your subject line enticed a news staffer to open your email, but you still need to hook them. Do this with the headline.

The headline should be the first line of text in the body of your email after the date, and contact info.

A headline can be longer and more specific than a subject line. It can be two lines, or contain two parts joined by a colon, or both.

Here's an example:

Subject line: BC Students To Honor Atheist Veterans

Headline: Veterans Day: There Are Atheists In Foxholes

Secular Students At Boston College Honor Non-religious Veterans

The Dateline:

The dateline is the place of origin of a press release or article. It comes immediately before the lede. So, if you're at Caltech, your dateline is "PASADENA."

The lede:

News folks call the first sentence of an article, the lede. It's spelled funny to differentiate it from "leading", the space between lines. The lede is what you "lead" your readers with - it's where you state the purpose of your story.

I have what I call "the heavy smokers rule" when writing ledes. A heavy smoker should be able to say your entire first sentence out loud in one breath.

For example: BUFFALO-A group of Buffalo State College students are opposing college aid for religious clubs.*

* Notice I didn't include the name of the student group or their reason for opposition in the lede. I'll get to that in next few paragraphs. This is just a quick summary of

the story. If I were using this as a lede, I would have already used a catchword like "atheist" in the headline and subject line.

Quotations

You should include a direct quotation in your press release in the second or third paragraph. Quotations should include opinion and should be written in a spoken word style.

Example: "If the college is giving money to evangelical clubs, like Christ's Crusaders Against Sugar, then it has to fund atheist clubs, too," said Joe Smith, president of the Godless Guild of Epicures.

When attributing quotations to a speaker:

  • Use "said" when spoken out loud;
  • Use "stated" when quoting a written document;
  • Put the actual quote first, then the attribution (i.e. he said.);
  • Don't include long-winded poetical ways of describing the speaker's mood.

The Nut Graf:

The paragraph in an article or press release that summarizes the story and its background is called the "nut graf."

Example:

This September, the University of Krypton Cultural Enrichment Fund awarded more than $3,000 to two Christian Evangelical student organizations. But the Freethinkers Society, a student club for the university's nonreligous, was denied funding on the grounds that the organization proselytizes atheism. Members of the Freethinkers Society are now filing a formal complaint to the University's Board of Trustees, charging the college with religious discrimination. Society members claim that, as a government institution, the university is violating the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The Body

For the rest of the press release, you need to decide what else is needed. You should probably include at least one other quote from a member of your organization. Include any other vital information, like the time and location of any events you plan to host.

Remember, quotations should contain opinion. The body of your press release should include facts. If you want to paraphrase someone's opinion in the body of your press release, make sure you attribute it.

Example: According to Joe Smith, faith-based abstinence-only programs just don't work.

At the very end of your press release, provide any relevant websites -- especially your organization's website -- or additional contact information. If your contact person has a cell phone, then be sure to list it.

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The last line of your press release must include three number signs. This symbol lets the press know that they have received your entire release and that they have reached the end: ###

Sending Your Release

The Secular Student Alliance provides help building media contact lists and sending press releases. Contact a campus organizer ([email protected])for help planning your press release. Don't wait until the last minute!

Now, here's a sample press release for you.

This release probably wouldn't get picked up because it just doesn't have enough of a news peg. But look closely at the format and use it as a guide. See if you can identify the different parts of the press release. Maybe you can think of ways to improve this.

___________________________________________________________________

Dec. 6, 2006
For Release: Immediately Upon Receipt
Contact: Duncan Crary, 518-432-7820 X 5
[email protected]

PR Pro: Atheism needs a makeover

Freethinking Students Learn How to Get Some Secular Spin

ALBANY, N.Y. - Atheism needs an extreme makeover, says one public relations professional.

"When it comes to the press, atheists have two choices: sit back and wait for Sally Jessy Raphael to come looking for a token 'angry atheist'; or get into the game and start doing some serious PR," said Duncan Crary.

Crary is director of communications at the Institute for Humanist Studies, a nonprofit think tank based in Albany, N.Y. that serves as a resource for and about the nonreligious. A former news reporter, Crary has placed scores of positive stories about atheists in the mainstream media, including USA Today, The O'Reilly Factor and The Wall Street Journal.

Now he's teamed up with the Secular Student Alliance, an Ohio-based nonprofit that supports secular high school and college students, to teach nonreligious students how to pitch their news.

"The religious right learned how to do PR a long time ago. It's time for secularists to catch up," Crary said.

According to Crary, press releases are the bread and butter of the news industry, but most are convoluted and insipid.

The average newspaper article is 8.5 column inches (or 450 words) long. If a group can't get their point across in 450 words, they can't expect the press to either, Crary said. That's why he has tips like what he calls "the heavy smoker rule" - that a heavy smoker should be able to say out loud the entire first sentence of a press release in one breath.

"You've got about six words to grab the attention of the news staff in your email subject line," Crary said. "I want these students to pay close attention to the tabloid headlines in the supermarket check out line."

Another common weakness in press releases that Crary works to correct involves quotations.

"Don't quote what you can paraphrase," he said.

A quotation should contain spoken word language and a unique opinion, he said. The body of a press release should contain facts.

August E. Brunsman IV, executive director of the Secular Student Alliance, said he hopes to book Crary to speak to secular student groups across the U.S. and Canada.

"This summer I called Duncan for advice for a routine local newspaper interview. The next day Stephen Colbert referenced that local newspaper article on the Colbert Report," Brunsman said. "Duncan's transforming the way secular people do news."

For information about the Institute for Humanist Studies, visit http://www.humaniststudies.org. For information about the Secular Student Alliance and information on how to book Duncan Crary to speak in your area, visit http://secularstudents.org.

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