The whole truth - and a little bit more

21st August 1998 at 01:00
Ever wondered how to get your school play reviewed in the press? A well turned-out press release could do the trick. But keep it simple, with perhaps just a little embellishment. Joy Sapieka and Giselle Glasman explain how they prepare the perfect piece.

Before launching into the arduous task of writing a press release, it is vital that you come to terms with one thing - most of the releases you send out will end up in somebody else's bin. As a PR, you must strive to be forgiving, and remember that even the most generously disposed journalist has not got enough time to read everything that drops through his or her letter-box.

Once you have accepted this fact, you can start enjoying yourself. The purpose of a press release is "deep penetration of the media to ensure blanket coverage". In other words, to get as many journalists as you can to drag themselves away from their free promotional bottle of Absolut and write an in-depth, award-winning six-page feature in Guardian Weekend about the horror-comedy at the Tufnell Park Tavern, or, more modestly, review the school play that you are publicising. Complete with colour pics.

Firstly, a list of don'ts: * Never use the words "highly acclaimed", "much-lauded" or "brilliant"; * Never make spelling mistakes; * Never lie. Embellishment, yes, porkies, no. You will always get found out and then some journalist will quote you in the paper, not only calling you a fibber but also referring to you as a PR girl; * Never forget to include the dates in a press release, or, even worse, send it out late; * Never send releases to people who died five years previously or to a journalist's predecessor who was disposed of in an office coup; * Never waffle. Ten pages of closely typed bumpf is never as good as one page of marvellously conceived prose.

The first stop on the road to putting together a successful press release is the first meeting with the client - often a nerve-racking experience. Try to get a feel for the project. The client may pontificate for anything up to an hour and a half, usually using words you don't understand.

Return to your office, sit down in front of your computer, take a deep breath, and get down to the actual writing. This involves brainpower, imagination, word craft and at least 20 cigarettes. Always keep in mind that the journalist's bin is looming.

Open with the title, producers, cast leads, director, writer, venue and dates. - often journalists do not get beyond this point. Then comes the most important part of the release - the first line and paragraph.

An example of how not to write a first line is as follows: "This hilariously wicked, subversive, ironic gem of a sideways glance at an abstract comedy of manners ..." Instead, try and be simple, to the point and make it interesting enough to keep 'em reading. It sometimes works to make a blanket statement of opinion as if it is fact, such as "Raffia is the new black". The media are very fond of doing this themselves and so find it quite appealing.

It's not always necessary to go for the hard sell. If you're representing a huge Hollywood star, you only need to get to the first syllable and most journalists will be begging on their knees and calling you "sweetheart". However, if you're publicising some obscure film directed by, written by and starring people only their mothers have heard of, then your first paragraph has to give journalists an overwhelming physical urge to phone you straight away to set up an interview. There's a big difference between a press release that serves simply to inform and one that's selling.

Then choose your tone. You can be funny, serious, ironic, intellectual, showbizzy, clever or any one of a range of adjectives - just don't ever be dull. Dull ends up you know where.

When writing the main body of the release, remember that there's a fine line between giving journalists an idea of the project and giving everything away. You want to tease them with information and put angles for articles in their subconscious (journalists always like to think that they thought things up themselves) but you don't want to write the review or feature for them.

One of the releases we're most proud of said practically nothing at all. It was for a production of a play about the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and this is how it went: "The Governor's Mansion I the palm trees I the heat I the bedroom I the Game I the far off sounds of war I the Fuehrer I the murder I the money.

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor in Nassau.

The whole truth I" This worked a treat and, if we do say so ourselves, was the beginning of a fab campaign. Sadly, the play's run wasn't much longer than the release, which just goes to show that a great press release doth not a hit make.

Then there are some words that you should bandy about at every given opportunity, to demonstrate that you are bang up to date with the latest industry jargon. When writing film releases, you should try to get at least 10 of these words in the first paragraph. They include "segue", "pacted" and "slate". Some examples of correct usage are as follows: "Leonardo di Caprio will finish shooting his latest picture Plump Boy and then will segue directly into Titanic 2: The Killer Rudder."

"British production outfit Flash Git Films have pacted with American giants J Hamburger Jr Productions."

"Lottery Rip-off Films have presented an impressive slate of projects in development with a look to production in 1999." (NB: "Slate" should never be confused with "slated". The latter describes death by critics and should be avoided at all costs.) In the world of theatre, there are certain phrases that become old friends, including "played to packed houses", "received rave reviews", "resounding success", "pre-Broadway run" and "smash hit musical". And, if you're publicising a theatre show, never forget to include the box office number. For some reason this always sends the calmest of correspondents into a rage of monster proportions.

Once the release is written, we recommend a week's rest and recuperation on the Thai island of Phuket. On your return, however, you will be faced with the sad fact that the press release is, unfortunately, only the beginning. Nothing ever happens without making 300 follow-up phone calls, when you'll have to explain everything all over again.

Joy Sapieka and Giselle Glasman work for Joy Sapieka Associates, a London PR company specialising in film and theatre

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