A Word to My PR Homies: On Writing a Lede

Hey, holmes!

It’s Monday! I hope you wonderful PR folks are at your desks and beaming with delight. Ok, I hope you’re grimacing through the pain. “Beaming with delight” would mean you’ve been playing Hoover the SnowBlower with a piece of straw and an eight ball, and this is NOT what we do on a Monday. Not on a Monday morning, at least.

Hokay. So.

I’m sleeping right now, but if I were awake, I’d be seeing your press releases trickling steadily into my inbox like obedient school children. By the time I rise, I will probably have more than 100 new messages from you guys. That’s what Mondays are for me. I wish to goodness y’all would throw me a bone on a Sunday sometimes, but that’s another post for another day.

Today, I want to tell you how learning a little journo trick can make your press release easier for us to read and thus more likely to receive press coverage.

It’s called the lede.

The lede is the first sentence of a news article, and it’s what we’re now going to call the first sentence of your press release. In fact, it’s the first paragraph of the release, too, because (IMPORTANT) the first paragraph of your press release should be one sentence.

Back in J school, we were coached to and even competed to write the shortest, most informative ledes possible. The lede must contain the who, what, how, where, and why (or whichever of those elements is most important or interesting) and must do so within about 25 words.

What this boot camp-like J school training means for you, the PR pro, is that you have 25 words to 1) tell me about the product/client, 2) convince me it’s newsworthy, and 3) show me you care about my time and know how to do your job.

As a journalist, when I encounter a press release, I instinctively begin to read it as though it’s a news article. I don’t read the salutation. Unless I know you personally (and sometimes, even if I do) , I don’t read any introductory information or questions about my personal well-being. I go straight for the jugular because I have eight hours to find, research, write, edit, fact-check, and illustrate three stories.

Here’s the first paragraph of a typical press release:

“[Redacted], Calif. (May 29, 2009) – [Redacted], Inc., a leader in next-generation office productivity solutions, today announced [Redacted] for Android, the first complete office productivity suite offering for Android-based mobile devices. A demo can be seen at the upcoming COMPUTEX trade show taking place June 2-6 in Taipei, Taiwan where [Redacted] will be showing its mobile office product line-up with ARM.”

Taipei? I appreciate the location-based info, but this is a press release, in English, sent from the Valley, to a journalist for an English-speaking-country-based blog.

Also, I don’t need to know about next-generation office productivity solutions or the like. Between repetition and buzz words, this lede is sinking fast! Let’s fix it up!

Ok. Forget what the CEO thinks is cool and important. Pretend you don’t give a crap about the product. Pretend you’re some retarded, hungover hipster. Now, look at your release. What about this news item really grabs you as interesting?

Well, after going over the [Redacted] release, I can tell you it’s pretty groovy to get a Microsoft file to work and be editable on a Google OS. And it’s rad to have an MS Office-like group of apps like available on a mobile phone.

Here are the things I don’t care about (for the purposes of lede-reading): The date. The place (unless it’s a conference I’m attending; see conference mailing list for my contact info). The company or product names (Unless it’s Google, MS, Intel, IBM, etc., it’s true! Work with me here!). The company or product marketing-speak taglines.

All I care about is what it does and why it’s different from every dad-blamed product like it.

Let’s get down to the 5 W’s (who, what, when, where, why, how – the “how” is silent) for this release. A company I don’t care about (let’s be realistic) is giving Android device-users the ability to access MS Office files from their phones. The apps can even handle PowerPoint presentations. That is god-awesome.

Hokay. So.

Here’s the new lede:

Starting today, Android device users can access and edit Microsoft Office documents and files anytime, anywhere.

Sixteen bloody words, and you’ve got a journalist’s interest. Your no-name company slips down a couple ‘graphs as you allow the name-dropped companies to grab my attention. You told me it’s launching today, which means if I hustle, I might break the news first. And you told me the soul of the news itself: I can edit the docs on a phone. Rad.

If you feel a bit saucy, try a dash:

Starting today, Android device users can access and edit Microsoft Office documents and files – even PowerPoint presentations – from their mobiles.

Oh my god, the app practically walks on water when you put it like that! And in just 20 words!

Word to My PR Homies #2: Learn to write a hot lede.

Ledes in your releases will do wonders. Go ahead. Ask me how I know.

Only about 25% of readers who skim the first ‘graph of a news article will read it to the end. That was a 2001-era J school stat, so it’s probably totally screwed by now. As journalists, we have an attention problem because our readers do. Like you, we’re writing for an audience that doesn’t care and that has no time to read. Like us, they’re just out there, scanning for information that’s relevant to them.

A good, interesting, short, informative, exciting lede will help us figure out if and why we should read your release and cover it. You can do it!

I love you guys! Have an awesome rest of the day, and I truly look forward to reading the items you’re sending me today! Without you, I could never do my job.  =)

17 thoughts on “A Word to My PR Homies: On Writing a Lede

  1. The best e-mail pitch I’ve received in months started like this:

    “Trust you’re well, by way of recall I’m (name) who you’ve never before, but if we did I’d almost certainly purloin some branded stationary from your office.

    I’ve been involved in a start-up for last 12 months which launched today and would love for you to take a look – the new missing link in online social media, with an unpronounceable name.

    We’re big LG fans and would stalk you if we could and it was legal and we lived in the same town.”

    Okay – got my attention…

  2. It’s refreshing to hear a journalist telling us how to get their attention and get a feature. You even included the subtle hint that Sunday might be a great day to send you a release.

    The funny (sad) part is you’ll get a 100 lousy releases tomorrow anyway =)

  3. @Louis – That’s the release I had in mind when I wrote my next post!

    I swear to goodness, it was so bizarre that we had to follow up. The site was weird and kinda dysfunctional; didn’t have the traffic yet to be a whole ecosystem. But by George, even finding that much out required more interest than we could normally devote to a no-name site with no user base.

    There is great value in gettin’ weird. Stay tuned…

    @Justyn Yup, the old rules don’t apply with new media journalists. PR folks have to be hawks. Know your journo. Know who’s on duty when. If Scoble’s posting on Friendfeed at 3 a.m. (and he always is), don’t wait until Monday morning to email him. Pitch him on Friendfeed at 3 a.m. Oops. This was supposed to be another post for another day.😉

  4. Great stuff ❤ We always sent press releases, written by ourselves, budgets are short and we can't pay PR staff.

    With us has work the other way word of mouth gets to a journo, they become interested and start asking question…

  5. Very good advice Jolie!

    Sadly, I learned all this stuff myself as a Journalism student, but apparently forgot it all when I started as an application developer because most of the pitches I’ve sent out look more like your ‘before’ example above then your ‘after’.

    We live and learn I suppose. I’ll be sure to keep this advice in mind the next time I write something up. Looking forward to your next post!

  6. Pingback: Twitted by PDXsays
  7. @Todd Heh, I think everyone could use a refresher course and a kick in the pants sometimes. Glad to see another J school grad in the industry!

    @Howard Great post, thanks very much for sharing! I think tech reporters just need to be more up front about how we need to receive information. Let’s face it: A bad pitch can ruin the chances for a great product, and it’s no one’s fault.

    @Hugo You’re probably the people best equipped to write your own releases, then – because you have the knowledge and enthusiasm to know what parts of the product are going to be most interesting and different! I’m posting a few more times – at least – on this subject, so stay tuned. It’s a crash course in how to write a good press release, really.😉

  8. This was eye-opening. I am happy that I read it- though I am not a self-proclaimed journo or a PR guy- as a freelancer, I must be both.

    Thanks,
    Brian

  9. @Todd As I mentioned above, it’s a cool product. Because of that fact alone, it got written up by the new kid, Mr. Steven Walling. And take a look at his lede:

    “Come July, ThinkFree, the web office provider which first added mobile access in 2008, will unveil the only *complete* Office suite for the Android OS.”

    Simple. Brief. No buzzwords. Gets to the exciting part right away. And it’s EXACTLY 25 words.

    My whole point here is that if PR folks can learn to think and write like the journalists they’re pitching, it’ll make everyone’s job a lot easier. I’ve been an in-house PR/marketing person, myself, and believe me, journalism-style writing is MUCH easier on everyone.

  10. Yep, he did a good job with it.

    I get what you’re saying – I should have prefaced my comment with the same observation about his lede, because that was kinda my point in posting it.

    All this communication, writing, human interaction stuff is hard for us developers sometimes😛

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