You won't like what I'm about to tell you, but when pet writers, bloggers and columnists get together, one of the things we do is compare notes about the terrible, badly-crafted, ineffective press releases we receive from marketers, PR agencies, and yes...from animal welfare organizations.
The sheer amount of bad outreach we receive does have one silver lining for you, however: It means that the good ones stand out. How can you make sure yours is one of the good ones?
In this three-part series, I'll give you an overview of the basics of working with the media, share a few insider tips on how to make the most of your relationship with reporters, radio and television personalities, columnists and bloggers, describe some successful media campaigns implemented by shelters all across the country and - perhaps most importantly - tell you how to avoid making the kind of mistakes that make us delete, toss or otherwise ignore your releases, emails and calls.
Before you worry about your message, before you buy "Press Release Writing for Dummies," before you start figuring out the who, what, where, when and why of your next adoption campaign or fundraising event, you need to figure out what writers, radio and television personalities, columnists, reporters, bloggers and other media figures in your area you want to target.
Start by discovering who in your area is writing about or interested in your issues. Go to Google and to the web sites of your local print publications and search for terms like "animal shelter," "dogs," "cats," "pets," "spay/neuter" or any other term you think might be relevant to your local animal welfare issues. (When using Google, be sure to include the name of your town or region.)
Identify those people in the local media who have written about your issues in the past, who write often about their own pets or animal issues, or who seem sympathetic to your cause.
Don't limit yourself to "lifestyle" or pet writers; you'll find pet lovers in all walks of life, and a sportscaster, movie reviewer or meteorologist who's crazy about dogs might become one of your most valuable media contacts. The indy music scene monthly, the gay press, an antiques quarterly published by the local shopping district - there are animal lovers writing for, and reading, all these publications. Don't overlook any of them as you create a list of members of the media you'll want to target.
Instead of sending out a press release as your first contact, send a note (either email or snail mail - you might have to guess which will be better received, but always use email when contacting bloggers and web-only writers) thanking them for something they said or covered. For example, this is a slightly edited version of a note someone sent that left a lasting impression on me (names of individuals and organizations have been changed):
I'm Joan Smith, and I'm the head of the fostering program at XYZ Shelter in San Francisco. Your recent column in the San Francisco Chronicle/SFGate.com on fostering was fantastic - and we've had a number of people contact us about fostering who mentioned they'd first heard about it in your article. Thanks so much for the great work!
All people in the media are human beings, and we all like to be acknowledged and praised. The time you spend composing something like this can go a long way to creating a positive impression of your organization in the mind of the person you contacted. It doesn't just make the ground more fertile for your future press releases, either. It puts you in our minds as a source for a future story, which can raise the profile of your organization. It makes it less likely we'll write something negative about your organization in the future without talking to you first. And it positively reinforces us for writing about things you'd like to see us writing about, which helps animals and your overall mission even if it's not specifically beneficial to your organization.
You can do this when you see a TV personality bring their pet on the set with them, or when a radio host talks about her companion animals on the air. Just let the station or individual know who you are, that you saw or heard the segment, and that you liked it. Be brief, be positive, and don't ask for a thing.
It's important, however, to realize that the media landscape has changed drastically in recent years. I'll have more to say about this in part two, but it's essential that you reach out to local bloggers and other writers who publish primarily or exclusively online as well as to traditional media outlets.
If you're involved with a large shelter or organization, you probably already have a list of local media contacts. If not, there are a number of "media finder" web sites and services you can use. My favorite is free, and is maintained, oddly, by the United Nations; you can find it .
Developing a relationship with the media should be ongoing. It's a seduction, not "slam-bam-thank-you-ma'am." Take your time and let your media relationships develop. Don't work so fast it feels forced or planned. Keep following those media figures and only contact them when you actually have something to thank or acknowledge them for, but by all means, be proactive in looking for those things.
While you're developing your relationship with members of your local media, think about what you want to say. In other words, think about your message.
Every organization has a number of messages it will want to get out over the course of a year. Ongoing messages might include asking people to spay and neuter their pets, to come to a volunteer session, or to donate to your shelter. You'll have adoption campaigns to announce, pleas for foster homes, and all kinds of ongoing programs and events you'll be looking to publicize.
Sometimes you'll need to talk about local legislative and regulatory issues, or broad national concerns such as the foreclosure crisis.
It's crucial that each piece of communication you write have one single message. Before you write the first draft of your releases, formulate clearly in your mind exactly what it is you want to convey, and then stick to that message closely. Too many messages in one release confuse reporters. Keep it focused.
A good press release does not begin with the words "According to..."
Nor does it begin with dry facts, numbers, or anything else guaranteed to bore anyone who looks at a dozen press releases a day.
A good press release, like a good article, column, blog post or radio spot, begins with a provocative sentence, what journalists call a "lede." It should relate to your message, but doesn't have to state your message. Its primary function is to draw the reader into the rest of the release.
Lede writing is an art, and it's one I strongly suggest you learn. The most valuable real estate in your press release is that first sentence, and most people waste it.
In case I'm not being clear, let me share with you a bad lede and a good one. These are both very slightly edited versions of ledes on actual press releases sent to me in the last year.
According to the Pet Products Manufacturer's Association, more than 63 percent of American households have one or more pets, with those with three pets or more making up almost one-third of that number.
It's spring, and that means flowers are in bloom, birds are singing, the sun is shining - and our shelter is full of kittens!
If you want to make a point about a statistical trend, you have to be tantalizing before you break out the facts and figures. Keep them to a minimum; you can always share them if the reporter is interested enough to contact you. Spend your time being interesting.
After the lede, the main body of a press release should answer the classic "Five W" questions: who, what, where, when and why. And if you're not sure what the "why" is, then answer this question: Why should the reporter, or his or her readers or viewers, care about this issue? If you can't answer that question, then go back to the "message" section and work on that first.
Include examples from real life ("The Smiths never thought the economic crisis would affect them, and certainly never thought they'd find themselves unable to afford to feed their pets. Thanks to our pet food bank, that's one less worry their family will have to cope with.") and/or quotes from an expert, affected person, or someone in your organization ("The success of our fundraising drive will mean the difference between life and death for homeless dogs and cats in our community," said XYZ Humane Society director Susan Doe.").
Use journalistic language, not elaborate or embellished language. Keep it short - absolutely no more than one page - and to the point.
It's highly unlikely you should use any exclamation points in a press release. If for some reason you really must, use only one. Never, ever use multiple exclamation points, and never use capital letters for emphasis.
Make sure your press release includes your name, title and contact information for anyone who wants more information. Conclude with the symbols ### to let them know it's the end of the release.
One of the most aggravating things for anyone in web publishing is to be sent a press release that can't be linked to. Before you email, fax or snail mail a press release, post it to your organization's website. If your publishing system is slow or cumbersome, then create, or ask your technical department to create, a blog. It's impossible to overstate how annoying it is to get a press release that isn't on the web, and it will probably mean that no blogger will touch what you sent them.
It should go without saying that you need to carefully proofread your press releases, but if the randomly capitalized, misspelled, badly punctuated, tense-shifting press releases I receive are any indication, people don't.
Run a basic spelling and grammar check on everything you write.
Have a second set of eyes look at every single professional communication you issue - we become blind to mistakes in our own work very easily.
Use a style guide, such as the Associated Press Style Book, to determine proper abbreviations, punctuation and - my pet peeve - capitalization.
Christie Keith is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle/SFGate.com, contributing editor and social media director for Dr. Marty Becker's Pet Connection, and has been a freelance writer and editor, mostly about animals, for 19 years.