Presented by HeavyPen Productions

Originally Produced for

Promoting Your Organization

Written by Ray Wyman, Jr.
Edited by
Cathy de Heer

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This document is not intended to tell the whole picture about public relations. I originally wrote it for NetDay's network of non-profit education groups, to help them launch a "grass roots" promotional campaign that was effective and inexpensive. These suggestions, tips, and guidelines will work for any organization or business, but is not a substitute for a professional PR practitioner. I have also attached a press contact database (found later in this document) comprising of about 700 U.S. magazines and newspapers which the reader is free to download and use at their leisure. --rw

Magic, or Just Hard Work?

Most of the news you read, see, and hear is triggered by somebody like you - somebody with a mission. Apart from crime, very little else that is reported as news is not self-generated. What we're talking about here are good intentions, community interest, and special events - things that, with a little luck and some hard work, you can turn into news and get the public attention you need to make your project a success.

Think of every aspect of your organization - the people, the mission, the event - as coins you can use to attract public interest. Your coin, when properly evaluated for newsworthiness, can generate public attention through the news. This guide will help teach you how to create news value, locate people who want it, and communicate with them.

The Value of Angles

Finding newsworthiness is a little like cutting a log of prime lumber into planks. An experienced cutter will study the grain for characteristics that can change the appearance of the final product. Cutting angles are set either to include or to avoid irregularities like knotholes and rot. You can cut into some knots at a sharp angle to create an interesting splash of grain or avoid them to achieve strong and rigid planks.

Break your organization down into three categories: people, mission, and event. Under each, apply names, dates, places, messages, and whatever else seems relevant. Use the old newsman's "5Ws" litany to organize your list: Who, What, Where, When and Why (or How). Include even seemingly negative and trivial things in your lists. Now stand back and take a good look. Each one of the items you wrote down is a possible angle that may be worthy of reporting. You can use an angle to create an interesting story or to make an old story seem new (more on that in Working an Angle). Use personal events, changes in your program, unexpected benefits, surprise after effects - anything that passes the "NIM" test: new, interesting, and memorable.

An example of greater purpose:

An entire school district is embroiled in a labor dispute. Kids are skipping classes and grades are down. Parents are outraged and school administrators are stymied. However, the NetDay event went ahead without a hitch. Today, the whole district is still reeling from the after effects of the strike. They've only begun to repair the damage, let alone deal with getting the schools on-line. However, thanks to the NetDay event, there is newfound willingness and optimism in the community to enjoin the teachers and administrators to find permanent community-based solutions for the big problems that still loom ahead.

A seemingly negative situation is suddenly transformed because the angle emphasizes a positive result. Even though the result may not be the one you planned for, it may nevertheless possess a quality that shows the project has significant value.

Here's a story with an angle:

After World War II, RCA Records announced that it had developed the first "unbreakable" phonograph record. Until that time, records had been made of clay and were very fragile. The new RCA record was made of vinyl, which was far more durable. To demonstrate the invulnerability of the new record, a publicity executive conjured up a stunt to drop both kinds of records from the top of the RCA building in downtown New York. The date was set and the press and public showed up in droves to see the platter splatter. At the designated time, the president of RCA dropped the old clay record by its edge and it zipped straight down to the street and disintegrated on contact. Then came the new super-platter. He dropped it in the same manner as its predecessor and, to everybody's surprise, it too shattered like an old dinner plate. Facing public impalement or worse, the panicked publicity executive redirected the stunned president to drop another vinyl record, ". . . but as if you were going to set it on a record player," he whispered. The change in aerodynamics caused the record to drift down to the waiting crowd, where it bounced off the pavement intact.

When hunting for angles, carefully survey where every angle may lead (the angles within angles). Look for related topics and dig up possible conflicts. Beware of side effects, but remember that not all side effects are bad. In the case of our intrepid publicity executive, a 90-degree change in his angle was sufficient to save his neck and end up with a great public demonstration. No matter what the angle is, never leave out the essential facts that are related to your organization, your mission, or your event.

Who'll Tell My Story?

The press can be your ally and your foe. It can help you promote your state project, generate public and private support, and rally community opinion behind you. Approach the press incorrectly or send the wrong message and it can tear you down and pit public opinion firmly against you. History is littered with failed projects with good intentions and lousy press relations.

The press communicates via print (including newspapers and magazines) and broadcasting (including television, cable, and radio); referred to collectively as the media. The most important thing to remember about the media is that each news organization has its own style and ideas on what to report. The folks charged with the responsibility of maintaining this editorial focus are called editors.

It's the editor's job to monitor and control the content and subject matter of all the stories. In smaller organizations, one person may split the task of editor and reporter. Larger ones can afford a full staff complete with a flurry of titles, subtitles, and more.

You can get a sense of where a journalist is on the organizational ladder by paying attention to his or her title. Here are some greatly generalized descriptions for titles you may come across that deal specifically with print.

  • The publisher is the financial and organizational center. Usually he or she has no direct newsroom responsibility; however, publishers can be terrific allies once you establish a good relationship.
  • The title editor-in-chief or simply editor connotes a person in charge of all aspects of reporting the news. He or she usually oversees newsroom operations and editorial schedules.
  • The title senior editor or editor may indicate the manager of a section, like the Lifestyles and Business sections of your local newspaper.
  • An associate editor is often a reporter assigned to cover certain topics or events. If a publication does not use senior editors, then the associate editor may be the person entrusted with senior editor-like tasks.
  • The go-fer of the newsroom is the assistant editor, who reports directly to his or her senior editor, editor, or editor-in-chief. Assistant editors may help other reporters sort through all the press releases and flag those that meet certain criteria.

In broadcasting, some titles stay the same. Here are some that are completely different.

  • A producer is like an editor-in-chief and may also have the responsibilities of a publisher.
  • The assignment editor, especially in television, is likely your key contact. The assignment editor controls the flow of all information and assignments. If you are holding a timed event, you may contact the assignment editor as little as hours before your event and, if you can get him or her interested enough, the assignment editor may send out a crew.
  • Associate producer and associate editor are titles used liberally to describe a person who helps the producer or assignment editor. Sometimes this person is a specialist in a particular topic (such as education or technology). This is a good person to contact for general coverage of your organization.

Watch, read, and listen to the kinds of reports that are communicated and tailor your press releases accordingly. With a little extra effort you can get the name of a reporter or editor who specializes in topics related to your organization (actually, it's quite simple ask the receptionist for a beat list).

Once you've made contact, consider these suggestions:

  • Editors and reporters are flooded with requests like yours every day. Make your headlines simple and to the point. An average press release has no more than five seconds to catch editorial attention. Use short sentences, easy words, and simple explanations.
  • Never argue with a reporter or an editor; never complain that you didn't get the coverage you expected or that a reporter was pulled from your story; and never criticize a story that was written or broadcast about your organization.
  • Misquotes happen frequently and are of no consequence unless the incident is very serious. In these cases, it is customary for the publication to print retractions or corrections in a subsequent issue. Otherwise, don't complain.
  • Always be gracious, appreciative, and patient.

The printed version of this guide included a list of about 700 press contacts for newspapers, magazines, radio, and television. You can download a TXT (PC-type) version of the list for your personal use. Note that due to frequent personnel changes, contact names (editors, reporters) have been replaced with the slugline "EDITOR" or "ASSIGNMENT EDITOR." Note also that the file can be reformatted as a database.

Preparing the Message

The most common way to communicate a message to the press is by issuing a press release. Press releases are like letters to the editor, but they have the format and organization of professional news copy. The grail of all news writers is The Associated Press Stylebook. You may want to acquire a copy for yourself. Try a local campus book store at a school where communications or journalism is taught.

Be sure that the editor can easily determine the major facts from your press release. As part of your preparation, organize your facts using the age old "5Ws" method:

  • Who you are;
  • What you are doing;
  • When you're doing it;
  • Where you'll do it;
  • and Why or How you're doing it.

You may want to write a simple press release in the above manner, using complete sentences to explain each "W" plainly and clearly. Format your document as a press release using the attached Sample Press Release). If you want to tackle a full-blown press campaign, try using the three-step plan outlined in the next section.

Working an Angle

Don't be surprised if it takes several press releases before an editor finally calls you back. Never send more than one copy of the same press release to one editor. Some public relations practitioners send the same press release to several editors and reporters of the same organization - a practice that is not well appreciated. An older method suggests staggered timing for different press releases that emphasize different aspects about the same event. This is called "working an angle."

Working an angle is actually among the oldest sales tactics. "If the customer doesn't want to buy a horse because he doesn't like to shovel manure, tell him the horse produces fertilizer and he'll buy two of them," goes the old huckster saying. By changing the angle and spreading your message out over several press releases, you'll also maximize the chances that editors will notice and remember you.

Now you're ready to ply your angles and lay down a press campaign. Here is a simple three-step press plan that covers six weeks of press release activity.

Step One: Write a simple one-page factual release that emphasizes who you are and what you're doing. This is commonly called an announcement release. It generalizes the other facts - as briefly as possible - but makes a to-the-point announcement that you exist and you have a purpose. If the editor is interested, he or she will contact you for details.
Step Two: Two weeks later, distribute a second press release with a new angle, emphasizing the When, Where, and Why (or how) of your topic. Unlike an announcement press release, this report may offer a longer list of facts about your organization. Repeat other details (Who and What) by blending them with the rest of the text. You may want to emphasize the mission by making a call to action for community participation. Strengthen your message with comments from a local VIP or celebrity. This release may run two pages.
Step Three: Two weeks later, distribute a third release that has more of a creative angle. Seek out things that highlight Why or How your project is important or unique to the community. Review all the other details, but try to bring in some color by telling an interesting story. Try looking at your story using these simple tests:
    • How do the facts of your project relate to the needs of the community?
    • Is there a real-life newsworthy situation?
    • Is there an interesting story about how your project came into being?
    • Is there an unexpected benefit from your project?
    • Has this ever been tried before?
Unlike the other press releases you write for this campaign, here you can exercise some authorship and creativity. You can state an opinion or make conjectures about your project, but NEVER use hyperbole (e.g., "the best ever", "an incredible opportunity") as you would in sales literature. Create authority in your story by backing up your opinions with quotations from another informed authorities or a local VIP. When ever possible, include statistical data from well-known sources, and testimonials from other people impacted by your project. This release can run well past three pages, but keep in mind that an editor probably will not use your story verbatim. Rather, the editor may like your story and use it to seed a full-blown feature article -- which, by the way, is the brass ring of public relations.

Anatomy of a Press Release

The content of basic press releases is really not much different from that of business letters. Use straight, to-the-point language and try not to stray into excessively technical jargon. Avoid using conjunctive phrases (such as wasn't and isn't), and keep a lid on hyperbole ("It's the most fantastic event of its kind"). Most of all, be factual and be timely: Don't guess your facts and don't distribute old information.

Many writers forget to properly define abbreviations or acronyms for organizations, objects, and so on. The result can be an alphabet soup that few people will understand. Perhaps you'll want to review this oft-forgotten and misplaced rule: The first mention of an abbreviation or acronym should be spelled out. Exception: USA, AFL-CIO, NASA, and similar familiar acronyms. The abbreviation should be enclosed in parentheses after the fully spelled name: General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). Use the abbreviation throughout the rest of the story.

Observe proper press release presentation and formatting. Avoid printing releases on letterhead. Use plain white paper only. Leave a 1-inch margin all around and double-space the body copy (the story content). Here are format suggestions (see the Sample Press Release):

  • A banner tells an editor that your document is a press release and who sent it.
  • The headline summarizes an essential fact. Headlines for "Step Three" releases can be a bit more creative and suggest a theme.
  • A slugline is optional and can back up the headline with a secondary fact.
  • The first line of the release is called a lead line. Open with the story location and the release date. The first sentence of the release should explain the headline in one complete sentence. A lead line can be about 15 to 20 words long and is often the only part of the release that an editor will read. Unlike "Step One" and "Step Two" releases, your lead line for "Step Three" releases can be creative, like a cleverly descriptive phrase or a thought-provoking narrative.
  • The body of the release is the story. Put the most important information first followed by information in order of diminishing value. Your story will be likely cut to fit into available space.
  • Boilerplates are important because they are the only part of a press release that is repeated, word for word, in every release you write. Start with Who, follow with What, and end with important contact information: address, phone numbers, fax numbers, and e-mail and Web site addresses.
  • The closer is the "###" used as the universal symbol that a story has ended.

Package Your Message

You may also create a press kit to hand out to editors and other interested parties. A press kit puts all the essential information about your organization into one tidy package. Anything worth mentioning about your project is worth putting into a press kit. You can use a press kit to send to your press contacts or to prospects. Be cautious about including clippings from other publications when sending a kit to an editor. You'll find that journalists are a jealous lot and they don't like to repeat a story that may have been run by a competitor.

Here's a menu of items that you may want to include in your press kit:

  • All press releases.
  • Background information on your organization and its mission, and biographies for key people (see the Sample Backgrounder/Fact Sheet).
  • Fact sheets, which repeat information offered in the "Step One" and "Step Two" press releases. List the facts in bullet format. Include statistical data, specifications, and other important facts (see the Sample Backgrounder/Fact Sheet).
  • As many letters of endorsement as you can get your hands on.
  • Copies of any recent speeches given on your behalf.
  • A directory of key people in your organization.
  • A folder that identifies your organization or company.

Ready, Set - Press!

Now all you need are some names and addresses so that you can distribute your release. I've included a list of newspaper and magazine for you to use for regular snail mail distribution. Download the list HERE). You may also want to try the "wire services" -- they send press releases via fax or data wire approved by most press organizations. Try PR Newswire ( and Business Wire ( There are also some web-based services as well. Try the Internet News Bureau ( Fees for these services can get a bit pricey, ranging from about $200 to $600 (depending upon the demographic 'spread' you select), but they're still more cost-effective than labeling, stamping and stuffing envelopes yourself!

Before you go off into the wild world of public relations, remember that you are asking the press to pay attention to you. So, as the Boy Scouts always say, "Be Prepared." When a journalist comes a callin', keep in mind that they are likely on a tight deadline. Deal with the reporter as you would any other important contact. Be prompt and efficient. Organize your thoughts and speak plainly, don't use a lot of hopped up jargon or hyperbole. Pace your comments so that the important facts are presented first. You may want to memorize key phrases and important concepts so you can work them into the conversation. Think "sound bites" and keep your responses to questions short. And always, always, always -- maintain eye contact, smile, and give a firm handshake.

Here's a list of final dos and don'ts, last words of wisdom that may help you avoid the most common PR pitfalls.

  • Don't cold-call editors. If you must call, get an insider contact to break the ice for you first.
  • Don't include cover letters or other documents when sending just a press release. Your release should speak for itself (and it only has five seconds to do it!). Exception: cover letters are OK if you're sending a press kit.
  • Don't fax or e-mail full press releases unless you know that the editor will accept press releases that way. Use a wire service instead.
  • Do include photos whenever possible. Tape a short note to the back of the photo and identify the subject matter and people.
  • Do hold press conferences, especially if you have access to VIPs or celebrities who will speak for you. Suggestion: Announce your press conference by writing and distributing a "Step One" press release. If possible, have your VIP or celebrity distribute his or her own release.
  • Do encourage partners and advocates to send out their own press releases, or include their testimonials in your press releases.
  • Do seek alliances with other organizations and like-minded people. They may have the press contacts you're looking for.
  • Don't be shy. Every aspect of your project is an angle, and every angle deserves a story. An editor will never fault you for trying to get attention by writing an interesting press release.

Sample Press Release

Sample Backgrounder/Fact Sheet

Press List

Original NetDay Document found at
If you have questions about NetDay, write to
If you have questions for the author, write to

Back to HeavyPen Home