How to write a viral press release on academic research

Its trendy at the moment to say the ‘press release is dead’. And while I would agree that the media industry has gone through a dramatic shift in recent years, that doesn’t necessarily mean the demise of the press release.

The problem is there’s a lot of wordy press releases sent to the wrong people which ultimately end up in the deleted folder of journalist’s emails. I think it’s fair to say that press releases have a PR problem.  However, if it’s done right, the trusty press release is still a quick and effective way to target relevant journalists with just the information you want.

Okay, so now that I ended the debate on why the press release is alive and well. I’m now going to explain how to write a release on academic research which meets the demands of our ever-changing communications landscape and ultimately, gets results. Or to put it another way – how to write a viral press release.

Keep it short

I think the most important thing to remember about press releases is they have to be short. An ideal press release is about 250- 400 words. That’s just three or four short paragraphs and a couple of quotes. If yours is longer than that, you’ve probably got unnecessary waffle that doesn’t add anything to the release. I know with academic research there are lot of elements which the academic might want to include, however a press release needs to be concise and clear in order to attract the attention of the journalist. If the release is done right, the journalist will probably get in contact and ask for the full academic paper anyway. 

Avoid jargon, explain technical and academic terms and say what acronyms stand for. Academic language does not, or should not, mean complex. When adapting academic research for a press release, the idea isn’t to make it simplistic but to make it accessible to everyone. Quotes from the academic should be used to provide insight and opinion and to support the rest of the press release. However, they definitely shouldn’t be full of jargon or technical language which no one can understand.

Although a press release is not written for a specific journalist or publication in mind. It is vital that your lists are accurate and are always being updated, if journalists are being bombarded with irrelevant releases you are literally asking for unsubscribes. As a PR person for universities or business schools you have to be selective with every specific release in order to get media hits and more importantly maintain your client’s stellar reputation.

Don’t make it too ‘salesy’

The ultimate goal of a press release is to promote the business school or university however, a journalist is not going to use something which sounds like an advert. Public relations is all about third party validation, and that is where the power of using academic research to give a university a stamp of approval lies. If the research is interesting and provides something new, journalists are going to want to write about it regardless, this means positive media coverage for the university or business school that the research belongs to. I know it’s tempting to just to talk about how great the new MBA is, however is that really adding anything that can’t be found in the brochure?

Nail the headline

Most journalists get thousands of emails every day, so the headline of the press release, which is also the subject line of the email, needs to really ‘wow’ them.  Make sure the interesting and new finding from the research is in the headline, not buried in the bottom line. Think of the subject headline as a Tweet.  Is this something you would open? But don’t try and be too clever: most journalists will spend just a few seconds deciding whether something looks interesting. If they don’t immediately understand what your story is about, they’ll move on to the next thing in their inbox. Make it accurate and accessible and it might just inspire that Financial Times journalist to write an article about that newly published research paper.

On a final note, I think it’s important to add a line in the release about why the research is important and why it matters to people, this highlights the importance of the research to the journalist and if you are lucky you might just have a viral press release on your hands.

If you’d like our help in promoting academic research or you want some communications support for your university, please get in touch via email or via telephone on +44(0)1582 790 704. We look forward to hearing from you.[1]


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