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Press Releases: Learn by Example

Written by Christy Whitehead

Many officers find themselves in the roll of PIO by default. Knowing how to write effectively can make the job much easier. While departments often allow new PIOs the chance to go to seminars on public relations, these seminars usually address more advanced topics like emergency planning and not the basics of writing for the media. 

Besides answering questions about a recent homicide a PIO needs to know how to effectively sell a story idea to a newspaper. That seems like an odd notion, but there are times when what the department does can create a positive news story. And when the public sees an officer doing positive things, they are more likely to think favorably of police officers in general. The PIO has to help maintain and mold that image. 

Many PIOs realize that getting the word out to the media about events the department is having is important, but many fall short on actually selling the idea in their press releases. 

Below is an example of a press release that could have generated a nice story about the police department’s community efforts:

The Police Department will be conducting a Roadside Safety Check in the 13th District at 2954 W. Madison. The Roadside Safety Check Patrol will commence at 2000 hours on 04 January 2004 and end at 0400 hours on 05 January 2004.

The Roadside Safety Checks conducted by the Department are funded by a grant from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and administered through the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT). This grant is in the 11th year of funding for the Roadside Safety Check Program.                                               

The above listed Roadside Safety Check will be the seventh funded by the 2003-2004 grant.

To be effective, a press release needs to read like a news article. The first sentence needs to grab the reader. The first paragraph would be better written if it stated the event, who the event affects, and why it is important to the community. The time and place, in this situation, would be better suited in a separate sentence.

Another problem with this press release is word choice. Sometimes newspapers, especially small ones, use press releases verbatim; if the press release has a lot of Associated Press (AP) style problems, the story may be ditched because the newspaper editor doesn’t have time to fix all the mistakes. 

Every PIO should own an AP Stylebook. It is the basic writing style for journalists, and the style that every PIO should follow when writing for the media. An example of an AP style error in the above press release is the use of military time. Unless the press release is intended for a military newspaper, avoid military time. 

Another AP mistake is the use of the year in the press release. Unless the event is scheduled for the following year, the year is unnecessary. The month and day are all that is needed.   

Journalists also live by the five Ws: who, why, when, where, what and how. This press release answers most of the fundamentals, but “why” is missing. Why should anyone go to the safety check?

Word choice is very important. In the second sentence the word “commence” is used to indicate when the event will begin. Stick to basic words like “start” and “end.” Avoid fancy words and excessive use of adjectives. Keep the language simple. 

Make sure to provide background information. The press release mentions a grant, but there is no note about what exactly the grant is for; this kind of background information is necessary and should be included. Don’t make a news editor go searching for information; give him the information he needs to produce a first-rate story about the police department. Here is the beginning of a different press release. 

The Police Department is encouraging citizens to check all child safety seats they have placed in their automobiles to make sure they are installed correctly. Studies show that 80% of seats used nationwide are not properly installed. To address this problem, the police department is conducting an Operation Kids program, offering free safety seat checks to citizens.

The first sentence of this press release flows better and states exactly what the police department will be doing. It also talks about child safety seats, so the editor will know this is relevant to his readers. This is the kind of information families need and an editor will likely run without hesitation. 

The statistic is a great way to back up information and provide additional information as to why the event is important. (The PIO used the % sign in this press release. The proper AP style is to spell out the word percent.)

In the first press release, no mention is given about what exactly happens at the safety check; the editor could assume that the police department is checking for drunk drivers or speeders. But since the editor does not know exactly what the safety check entails, he will be less likely to do a story on the safety check. 

The following is a different kind of press release.

Today, the longest-serving police department detective stepped down to enjoy his future years with his wife and grandchildren. Detective John Smith joined the department 38 years ago when there were only call boxes to notify officers of their need for service. Smith gave a lot of himself to the citizens of the city and the police department. He was active on a variety of boards, one of which included the Police Brotherhood. The Police Brotherhood is very active in a boxing program for youth of the community, which requires a lot of the officer’s own time and a strong dedication to the program. Smith and his wife Cathy have also provided many volunteer hours to assist with a variety of other charity functions which benefited not only the department, but the community as well.

Notice how the press release is one giant paragraph. Journalists keep their paragraphs short, generally one to three sentences max. A newspaper, like a magazine, is divided into columns, so one sentence can equal a very long paragraph when printed.

This press release would be better if the opening paragraph was a sentence stating the detective was retiring and a note about a major accomplishment. Even a quirky accomplishment is better than nothing. Maybe the officer saved 10 cats from drowning in a flood or once raised $1,000 for a fallen officer.

The boards he was on and any charity work he was active in could be included in additional paragraphs. The sentence about him enjoying future years with his wife and grandchildren is awkward. Be specific— is he going to travel? Does he plan on taking the grandchildren to Disney World? The sentence mentions grandchildren, but does not mention children. Were they killed? Does he raise the grandchildren— if so, is this his reason for retiring?

Also, note the word “today” that starts the press release. By the time the newspaper prints the story, “today” will no longer be accurate. Try to write press releases in advance of the event. For example, Smith will retire on Aug. 15. Timeliness is very important to the media. The media would prefer to run stories in advance of an event, or as it’s happening.  Very rarely is an event that has passed newsworthy. 

Think like a journalist when writing a press release. What would a journalist do to make the press release more interesting? The press release mentions a boxing program for youth of the community in which the retiring detective participated. Did the officer have a special bond with one of the children in the program? 

If so, talk to the child and get quotes. Provide contact information so the journalist can follow up with more questions for the child. (If under 18, ask for permission to include the child’s information for a possible news story.) At the least, get a quote from the police chief or colleagues about the retiring officer. Additional information like this adds vibrancy to a press release and increases the chance for publication.

Topics like retirements are not considered major news, especially in larger cities, unless the retirement is someone widely known, like a police chief. It is the PIO’s job to make the information interesting and newsworthy. Another way to do that is to include pictures with the press release.

The following press release included pictures of two suspects wanted by the police.  Pictures along with a journalistic style of writing make this a good story for the media.

The Police Department is trying to identify two suspects who flimflammed an elderly woman out of more than $10,000 on Friday.
The victim told investigators a man called her Friday morning and identified himself as an investigator from the police department. The caller told the victim that someone had obtained her bank account numbers and was going to steal her money from the accounts.
A few minutes later a man who identified himself as the investigator and a female accomplice, who identified herself as a police department employee, rang the victim’s doorbell. They told the victim she needed to go with them to the bank and withdraw her money so the people who had her account numbers couldn’t take her money from the bank.

However, here are a couple of instances that could be reworked. In the first sentence the PIO used the word “flimflam.” Words like flimflam and gobbledygook are just that—  gobbledygook— wordy and unintelligible. If a reader has to pick up a dictionary to understand a sentence, he will likely skip the article altogether. A newspaper reader needs to be able to understand a story without keeping a dictionary at hand. Keep press releases simple and in plain English.

Look at the first sentence in the third paragraph. While officers use the word “accomplice” regularly, for everyday situations an individual does not identify herself as a “female accomplice.” Also note that in the same paragraph the man identifies himself to the victim before he rings the doorbell. 

Since the police department does not know the names of the suspects, the story becomes a little confusing and at times is hard to follow. Telling a story like this, without names, is a tough job for any PIO. 

Here is a press release that is interesting and very newsworthy.

The police department officers from the Juvenile Division’s Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) unit and the Special Investigations Division arrested a Martinez man in a lewd conduct case September 2. Steve Ranse, 46, was arrested at a Balboa Street café where he was to meet who he believed was a 13-year-old girl, contacted through an on-line chat room. Police found incriminating sexually related evidence in Ranse’s car.

Ranse has been charged with Penal Code Section 288(a), attempted lewd conduct with a child under 14 years of age, a felony.           

ICAC has a two-fold purpose of education and enforcement in the area of Internet crimes involving the exploitation of minors.

This press release has too much information in the first sentence— it is a mouthful. The first sentence says that a man was arrested in a lewd conduct case. Be specific— what was he arrested for? Maybe the first section could be rewritten to read:

A Martinez man was arrested for attempting to pick up a 13-year-old girl he met in a chat room. What Steve Ranse, 46, didn’t know was that the teenage girl he had been talking to in an online chat room was really a police officer with the Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) unit.  

Ranse was arrested at a Balboa Street café and charged with lewd conduct with a child under 14 years of age, a felony.

This rewrite reads more like a news story and puts the most interesting information at the top. It catches the attention of the reader better than the original and encourages people to keep reading. Since the press release will be on department letterhead, the department who arrested Ranse will be obvious and unnecessary at the beginning of the press release.  What Ranse was arrested for should be the issue immediately addressed in the press release.

Another key in writing press releases is to make sure that all writing is void of jargon. Jargon is all technical vocabulary used among members of a particular profession. While police jargon would be appropriate for a trade related publication like a law enforcement magazine, in a daily newspaper jargon is confusing to the average reader.

The official press release indicated the penal code that Ranse was being charged with; “penal code” is jargon. The information is effective without the actual penal code section; Ranse was charged with attempted lewd conduct with a child under 14, a felony. 

PIOs have many jobs to do and writing effectively helps get the job done successfully. A PIO who doesn’t know how to write effectively is like a police officer who doesn’t know how to use handcuffs— while it seems trivial on the surface, it is extremely important to know. 

 

Christy Whitehead is a freelance writer/photographer based out of Jacksonville, FL. She worked for a time in public relations and has done freelance work for a daily newspaper for seven years. She can be reached at WritingArticles@aol.com.


Published in Law and Order, Feb 2004

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