Keep your news releases clear

Your news releases should be easy to understand, short and to the point, focusing on the actual news your nonprofit is announcing.

Instead, news releases from many nonprofits are confusing, vague, long-winded and roundabout, focusing on the nonprofit and its leaders, not the news.

Write your news release for your audience, which is the news media.

News organizations are flooded every day with news releases, and must make quick decisions about which ones to use and which to throw away.

So make it easy for busy news people to see in an instant why to choose your news release.

What is the news you are announcing?

If you have a new partnership and its goal is to increase the number of local third-graders who read at grade level, for example, say precisely that, in the fewest possible words, in the subject line of your email message — “Helping kids read sooner” — and in the headline of your news release — “Helping kids read sooner focus of new partnership.”

Then, in the first paragraph of the news release, make your main point again, adding a key detail or two: “Supporting families so their children can read at grade level by third grade — a key indicator of future success in school and the workplace — is the goal of a new partnership among local schools, nonprofits and businesses.”

The difference you will make in the lives of people, and why that matters, is what is important.

In the hypothetical example of the youth-literacy initiative, the impact on children is what is important, and it matters because kids who can read at grade level by third grade are more likely to succeed in their schooling and careers.

But in the first paragraph of many news releases, nonprofits typically do not focus on what really matters.

Instead, in the first paragraph, nonprofits focus on themselves: “Ann Smith, chairman of the board of directors of Words Matter, a nonprofit that has the mission of fostering early youth literacy as a pathway to a bright future for all children, and Bill Jones, executive director of Words Matter, along with Jane Miller, superintendent of Our County Public Schools, and George Brown, chairman and CEO of Local Business Corporation, are proud to announce an exciting new collaborative initiative, ‘Reading Together: An Evidence-based Collective Impact Program of Place-based, Inclusive Community Supportive Services for Low-wealth Families to Improve Youth Literacy and Break the Cycle of Generational Poverty.”

What typically follows is a long, often disjointed explanation of the problem and its causes; statistics about the problem; citations from research studies and other efforts to address the problem; and quotes from the executive director and others touting their project as “bold,” thanking donors for funding it, characterizing their donors as “investors” who are “generous,” and predicting that the new initiative will “move the needle” on a big community problem — but not providing details of the program, explaining how it actually will work and why it will make a difference, and quantifying its costs and the impact it will have.

This example clearly is exaggerated, but not by much.

Far too many nonprofits simply do not know how to write a news release.

In deciding whether to run a story, the news media do not care that it is your board chair and executive director who are announcing a program, or what the jargon-filled name of your program is, or which research data you can cite, or whether you are thrilled about your new program and grateful for your donors, or whether you believe you are innovative, or whether you are “bringing new voices and messengers to the table,” “leveraging public-private” resources, and creating a “breakthrough” model for social change.

What the news editors who will decide whether to run your news want to know is why their readers should care about your news.

So instead of writing your news releases for yourselves and your own leaders, and using the mind-numbing jargon, clever catchphrases, philanthropically-correct buzzwords, overstated self-praise, and impenetrable research and data your staff and peers favor when you talk to one another, just say what you are doing and what difference it will make in your community, use plain words that anyone can understand, use as few words as possible, and cite only research and data — if any — that will underscore or illustrate the problem you are addressing and the impact you expect to have.

Sell your story to the news media by making it easy for them to understand why your news matters and why their audience should care. Keep it clear and simple.

Want help?

Philanthropy North Carolina is a consulting practice that provides writing and strategic communications support for nonprofits, foundations, colleges and universities, and others working for social good.

To find out more about hiring Philanthropy North Carolina to work with your organization to improve your communications, contact Todd Cohen at 919.272.2051 or

One response

  1. I had to chuckle at your example — I see this over and over, and not just with nonprofits. Press releases written by an organization’s marketing department tend to be the worst offenders, particularly in the corporate world.

    Even with years of experience writing press releases, I have to remain vigilant so that something equally obnoxious doesn’t creep into a release, either by me or by a client who doesn’t understand the ins and outs of media relations.

    When pitching media via email, what I struggle with most is the perfect subject line. When I’m contacting a writer or editor I’ve never worked with before, I’ve been trying out here and there is “Story Idea: Blah blah blah about blah blah blah,” instead of “Blah blah blah about blah blah blah.”

    Do you have any thoughts if that approach would help or hinder the goal of piquing interest? In some ways, the subject line is more important to get right than the body of the email or the press release itself — if it doesn’t resonate, the release will be deep-sixed without a second’s hesitation.

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