Witing for Government

Notes on Writing a Press Release

Press releases (or media releases) are one of the most effective ways for governments to get their messages out. They allow any level of government to create its own news stories and circulate them to the public through media of all kinds.

A good press release is a clear, focused and readable account of whatever information a government office or agency wants the public to know about. Press releases are a lot like news stories, and if well-written are often reprinted with few changes in newspapers and other media outlets, ensuring the message gets passed on to the public intact.

The Parts of a Standard Press Release

Press releases usually have these parts in this order (although you will find slight variations):

  • letterhead or logo of the government organization
  • release time (either "For Immediate Release" or for release on a specific date)
  • date
  • headline that highlights the message (e.g., NEW CHILDREN’S MENTAL HEALTH PLAN FIRST IN CANADA) in uppercase letters, boldface, or both
  • location (e.g., Victoria, Whitehorse)
  • body (5–7 short paragraphs)
  • end: marked by "–30–" centred
  • contact name and information

Structuring the Press Release

Start with strong headline. Decide what the most important element of your piece is, the part you most want your readers to remember. State it in 10 words or less. Ask yourself if what you wrote would make sense to someone not familiar with the subject.

Start your first paragraph with a strong lead, something that will catch your readers’ attention and lead them into the rest of the piece. It doesn’t have to be clever, it just has to grab your readers’ interest.

The lead paragraph should cover who, what, where, when and how, as applicable. This paragraph conveys all the important information.

Then present the details of the story, following inverted pyramid order, starting with the most interesting or pertinent information, followed by the rest of the details in order of decreasing importance.

Keep the length to 1–2 pages, 5–7 paragraphs, and no more than 3 sentences per paragraph.

To figure out what to include

  • Ask yourself what you want the story to do. Do you want support? attention? awareness? Write your piece with that purpose in mind.
  • Put the things you want noticed ahead of other details.
    • Original: On Monday, February 7, Minister for Children and Family Development Gordon Hogg and Minister of State for Mental Health Gulzar Cheema announced a new plan to address children's mental health problems.
    • Revised: Canada’s first comprehensive, provincial mental health plan for children was released today by Gordon Hogg, Minister of Children and Family Development and Gulzar Cheema, Minister of State for Mental Health.
  • The remaining paragraphs should give more details, explain as necessary, and emphasize your key points.
  • Support your message with statistics or quotes.
  • Keep each statement and paragraph short and focused. Get to each point as quickly as possible.
  • If you are including an important announcement (a new program, policy change, funding) make sure it is clear, accurate, complete and easily found in the text (usually in its own paragraph).

Remember, the aim of the press release is to have the greatest impact with the fewest words.

Writing and Editing Tips

  • Keep things short, simple and to the point.
  • Keep the writing clear, tight and straightforward.
  • Use a conversational tone, but keep it neutral and relatively formal (look at sample government press releases to get an idea of the appropriate tone).
  • Put the most important details – who, what, when, where, why and how – in your first paragraph.
  • Write a concise middle – only the details that reflect exactly what you want to say.
  • Write a brief, concise ending that ties things off (conclusion) or leads on (refers to something beyond).
  • Edit, using these questions:
    • Will your readers be able to visualize what you’re talking about? Use words that people can "see" (places, people, things), rather than abstract terms (strategies, concepts, initiatives, improvements).
    • Have you eliminated every unnecessary word?
    • Have you provided good transitions between paragraphs?
    • Have you varied the length of your sentences? Too many short sentences can give a choppy quality to your writing.
    • Do the words sound conversational in tone? Read your article aloud and edit as you go.

Send questions or comments to sdoyle@uvic.ca. © Susan Doyle, 2013