PRESS RELEASES

Press releases—also known as news releases—are brief, printed statements that outline the major facts of a news story in journalistic style. As part of its overall public relations effort, a small business may need to prepare press releases in order to disseminate new information about its products, services, operations, or other activities. A steady flow of news helps to make a small business more visible to the public and creates favorable interest in its activities.

In his book Public Relations for the Entrepreneur and the Growing Business, Norman Soderberg lists several possible types of news stories that a small business could generate. For example, a small business might announce the promotion, transfer, retirement, or hiring of personnel, or the negotiation of a new labor contract. Building new facilities, planning a major expansion, installing new equipment, or offering a new product are other newsworthy events that might occur in a small business. In addition, human interest stories might arise from the unusual hobbies or avocations of employees, the success of company-sponsored sports teams or events, or the company's participation in charity or community activities. If a small business received an award or a visit from a celebrity, these events might provide impetus for a news story as well. In general, a newsworthy story should be timely, of general or human interest, and somewhat unusual.

PREPARING A NEWS RELEASE

In order to attract the attention of the media to anything but a vitally important story, a small business will probably have to prepare and send out a news release. Ideally, the news release will generate enough interest that the media will choose to cover the story themselves. A news release may also be useful as a handout to provide basic information to reporters who come to cover a story.

Soderberg explains that a well-written news release should include "five Ws and an H": who, what, when, where, why, and how. The lead, or first few lines of the news release, should address all of these questions, though not necessarily all in one sentence. The remainder of the news release should provide supporting information—such as facts and figures or quotes from people involved—in most-important to least-important order. Overall, a news release should be crisp and concise, never exceeding two pages in length, and similar to a newspaper article in content and style. It is important that a small business owner find someone to write the news release who has a good command of language, grammar, and punctuation.

News releases should be typed on company letterhead and include the name and address of the company, its trademark or logo, the name and telephone number of a contact person (usually the small business owner, even if the job of preparing the news release is delegated to another person), the date, and the words "News Release." The importance and scope of the story determines where it should be sent. In most cases, it would be appropriate to send it to the business editors of the local print media. Sometimes sending it to local radio and television contacts might be appropriate as well. A small business can create a mailing list of relevant addresses, which can be found in media and trade journals and some reference books, to simplify the process. Some publications have begun accepting press releases online. But small business owners should avoid the temptation to follow up a news release with a telephone call.

PRESS RELEASES IN THE AGE OF ELECTRONIC INFORMATION

The common press release has undergone several significant changes in recent years as the Internet has revolutionized the way news is delivered. The wide availability of online information allows average investors to receive business news at the same time as analysts and news services. While some investors have been able to use this instantaneous information to their advantage, it has also opened the door for some dubious practices. For example, many companies have been victimized by fake press releases issued by disgruntled former employees, unscrupulous investors, or competitors. Such "news" is usually intended to cause harm to the targeted company by convincing investors to sell its stock.

On the other hand, some companies have taken advantage of the technology to issue press releases of debatable merit, apparently with the intention of increasing their stock prices. "Once a relatively mundane communications device, a press release now has the might to dramatically drive the price of a stock," according to Business Week. "As a result, more companies are designing press releases with that goal in mind. But it's not just edgy or pushing-the-truth headlines from lesser-known companies that are designed to spike share prices. Stock analysts say established companies are also playing fast and loose with press-release language, especially those involving earnings reports. They may exclude entire unprofitable subsidiaries, or leave out key information—such as certain losses—in order to appear rosy to investors."

Some companies release information prematurely—for example, they might announce a planned merger or joint venture before the deal is completed—while others bombard the information highway with daily press releases in an attempt to keep their stocks in the minds of analysts and investors. "Apparently, some high-tech companies use press releases not only to inform the trade press but also to impress Wall Street analysts and business reporters and—through them—to impress investors who have no other way to get news because they don't read the trade press," Mark Ferelli noted in Computer Technology Review. In any case, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has begun taking notice of business news releases on the Internet. Experts recommend that investors look beyond companies' paid public relations efforts and review their filings with the SEC before making investment decisions.

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