PR Bootcamp for Photogs
Asking for Your 15 Minutes … or,
How to Write a Press Release
October 2009

by Cathy Saypol

Do you have an exhibit opening in a gallery? Do you have a book coming out? Have you just gotten an exclusive 10 minutes with the Pope? Are you looking for funding for a documentary you've already begun to shoot on your dime? Have you decided that taking great, innovative portraits of this year's high school graduating class in your town is the way to make some cash?

You probably want to attract some attention for your accomplishment, and get the word out to the public so they attend your gallery opening, buy your book, license your exclusive images, or write out a nice big check to fund your latest doc. A well-written press release is one way to go.

The idea of a press release is to alert a print or broadcast journalist, producer, or assignment editor that you're doing something exciting or noteworthy and that they'll want their readers/viewers to know about it.

Writing it isn't that difficult. Making it interesting and usable is the task that's most important. Even we pros, at least the good ones, who have been doing it for years, and on many different subjects, don't do it "in our sleep." We have to take the steps that I'm going to tell you in the following paragraphs.

First, you have to think about what you want "them" to do with this information. What action do you want them to take? Do you want a column mention, or a full-on interview? I know this sounds trivial. Of course, you want them to use it. But, ask any editor or producer on the receiving end of thousands of those things and they'll say over and over again, "What the hell am I supposed to do with this?! What's the point?!" If the person reading it doesn't understand within the first few sentences, you can forget about the rest.

So, the old journalist rule about "tell them what you're about to tell them, then, tell them, then tell them what you told them" applies here too.

Start with your headline. It can have two parts:

1) The Cliff Notes version of your whole story. Example:

Never-before-seen images available now."

2) Or, a subject not so grand, but totally worth covering. Example:

Portraits of children and their pets will benefit Humane Society."

Then, remember your 5th-grade teacher who taught you how to write a composition? It had to have the famous elements, Who? What? When? Where? Why? (or How?).

Make sure you include answers to all these questions:

WHEN: When is the event/book launch/new photo workshop opening? It is very important that you begin with, "On Monday, Oct. 12, 2009, blah blah blah … "

WHO: Who are you? You don't have to be famous, or infamous. But you do have to say that you're John or Jane Smith, who's been making images of popes/flowers/wars/politicians/food for XX years and you're a local resident, if that's what's important to your story.

WHAT: This is the 'what you're asking to be covered' part. If it's the first time so and so has been photographed, then this is where you want to say that, simply and plainly.

If it's the opening of an exhibit, then say that. Example: "For the first time in his 40-year career, local photographer James Smith is exhibiting work from his early years as a beat photog for The Washington Post."

WHERE:  If it's a gallery, give THE WHOLE ADDRESS. If it's a bookstore, same deal. If it's a talk at a community center, put the address down, even if everyone in town knows where it is. The press release is likely to end up on the Internet, and you'll get more people from surrounding areas if you make it easier for them to find you.

WHY: I can't help you with this one except to say that editors and producers are not interested in why YOU think your project's important. They care that their audience thinks it's important. So … you need to tell them why there's community interest, historical importance, a good fundraiser, or other significance.

Make sure you include contact info – how to reach you (or your publicist) by phone or e-mail.

Do a spell and grammar check before you send this thing out to the masses. I know you're all photogs, not writers, but you don't want the recipient to be paying more attention to your mistakes than your message. So take the extra five minutes, and let Word scan for errors.

Last but not least, if someone else is writing a press release on your behalf, don't be shy. (Don't be rude, but don't be shy). Speak up if it doesn't feel or sound right to you. You know your work better than anyone else, and you know why it's important. My friend, and occasional client, David Burnett, whose remarkable work (from his newly published "44 Days: Iran and the Remaking of the World") was featured here on the DJ last month, is a good example. David is really, really good about editing press releases that his publishers (or even this publicist) write about his projects. He doesn't whine, or abuse. But he DOES write clearly and simply what important facts are missing, misrepresented, or just not explained correctly.

Run your press release by a few friends, preferably friends who don't know a lot about your work. See if they "get" it, and, if you can keep their interest. If the answer is "yes," then it's a fairly safe bet that you're good to go. Now you can pull out that media list you've been working on, and use it.

Next time … Working (successfully) with publicists and other potential communications roadblocks.

© Cathy Saypol

Cathy Saypol is a PR consultant who has represented high-profile publishing, photography and documentary projects for more than 30 years. You can reach her at

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