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The six C’s of news releases

Geri Dreiling//March 26, 2009

The six C’s of news releases

Geri Dreiling//March 26, 2009

After an indictment is filed in the U.S. attorney’s office, often a new release is issued to the media, summarizing the charges.

When an attorney general settles a suit on behalf of the state he represents, a press release announcing the results may be sent out to reporters.

Yet when a private attorney files, settles or wins a lawsuit involving matters of public policy, safety or an incident already widely covered in the press, the act may go unnoticed.

This isn’t because reporters make a point of ignoring private attorneys. Short of parking a reporter next to the filing clerk’s office in every courthouse in the state, it is virtually impossible for news organizations to learn about all of the important legal developments that merit ink.

Having represented clients as an attorney, covered lawyers as a legal and investigative reporter and worked with lawyers as a publicist, I’ve seen firsthand what works when it comes to law-related news releases. I’ve distilled these best practices into a set of guidelines that I refer to as the “six C’s” of news releases.

Candidates for news releases

Not every case, legal development or settlement will pique a reporter’s interest. Selecting the proper topic is one key element of an effective news release.

A lawsuit filed when someone sustains soft-tissue injuries in a fender-bender won’t make the news, but a lawsuit filed on behalf of someone who was injured in catastrophic highway crash involving a tractor-trailer that killed several people and was widely covered by the media would certainly merit a press release.

A contract dispute between two parties over the terms of a business lease probably won’t be news. However, a class action on behalf of consumers alleging that the terms written into a payday-loan agreement are predatory is news.

A product liability petition alleging that a mechanic was injured when a tire exploded may not merit a news release, but a suit involving a defective tire that has a record of exploding, has been the target of numerous lawsuits and has injured scores of people would be newsworthy.

Generally a lawsuit is newsworthy if the issue affects a wide swath of the public, rather than just your client or it involves an incident that has already received attention from the press.

Contents of a news release

Think of a news release as the CliffsNotes version of the lawsuit. The news release summarizes, in narrative form, the allegations contained within the suit. Except for a quote from the attorney bringing the case, it typically stays within the confines of what is alleged in the petition or complaint.

The first sentence, simply stating who is suing whom for what, is followed by a paragraph or two summarizing the factual underpinnings of the case and then a paragraph briefly outlining the legal theories asserted by the plaintiff.

The news release should identify the attorney who filed the case, the caption of the case, the court in which it was filed, the case number and the filing date. It should also include a contact name and phone number for a reporter who wishes to follow up on the case.

The news release may also contain a brief statement from the lawyer, perhaps touching on why the suit was filed in the first place. For instance: “We believe that this danger has existed for years, and it is my client’s hope that by bringing this case she will be the last person to be harmed.”

Clear and concise

While working as a reporter, I made the mistake of using the word “tort” in a story. An editor made a personal appearance at my desk with a copy of the story in his hand. “Are we writing about pastries?” he asked.

I launched into a legal explanation of a tort. He listened patiently and when I was done said, “I know what a tort is, but that isn’t important. Our readers are the ones we write for, and many won’t know. Change it.”

The point is that Joe and Sally Sixpack probably don’t have a copy of Black’s Law Dictionary handy. If your news release is packed with legalese, a reporter will have to spend a lot of time translating it. A lawyer who follows Wydick’s exhortation to use plain English will also make the journalist’s job easier.

In addition to being clear, a news release should be concise. This isn’t easy. As Mark Twain once said, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

An average news story is about 800 words long. The reporter is going to have to make your news fit the space allotted for the piece. If you don’t pare the information down, the reporter will do it for you.

The gold standard for the length of a news release is one page. I don’t always meet that aim, but I never exceed two pages.

Client communication

Before a news release is sent out, most lawyers will explain to the client why it is appropriate for that particular case. The lawyer should discuss with the client how any media contacts will be handled if a reporter calls.

An article is a story based on facts. For a reporter, the main character – the person at the center of the drama – is the plaintiff. Unless the publication is one geared specifically for lawyers, the attorney is often viewed as part of the supporting cast. That means that a journalist may track down your client and give him a call.

Some attorneys instruct their clients to refer all questions to the lawyer, who then answers all questions. Some lawyers will allow the client to be interviewed but only if they are present. Never forget to set up your ground rules with the client ahead of time.

Contact the relevant beat reporter

As a reporter, the news releases that caught my attention were ones sent specifically to me that were relevant to my legal and investigative beat. If I received a press release announcing the opening of a new restaurant and I had time, I might forward it to the restaurant critic. If I didn’t have time, the release was ignored or deleted.

In my experience, the most effective news release is the one with a carefully crafted submission list. Legal reporters may be interested in a lawsuit filed over a catastrophic trucking accident. Journalists who cover the traffic beat should be included on the list, and any reporter who covered the original incident should receive a copy of the news release as well. Include the local office of a wire service such as The Associated Press on the circulation list.

Newsroom resources are scarce, and the ranks of reporters grow thinner each day. Chances are a media organization in an area with no connection to the plaintiffs, the defendants or the incident will not be eager to assign a reporter to the story. However, it may run an article written by a journalist at a wire service such as The Associated Press.


Reporters who receive news releases don’t simply decide to write stories. They typically must pitch the stories to editors before getting the green light. It may take some convincing before an editor gives the OK to a story, but once an article has been assigned the editor expects that it will be turned in.

A reporter has gone out on the limb for you to write the piece. Don’t leave him hanging.

Have a file-stamped copy of the lawsuit that can be faxed or e-mailed to the journalist. The reporter will need to personally verify that a lawsuit indeed exists and makes the allegations that were summarized in the news release.

Be available for questions. One of the most frustrating things a reporter can encounter is a news release contact who is unavailable. Tight deadlines may mean that an article must be turned in only a few short hours after it is assigned. A television news reporter may need to hastily set up an on-camera interview. Unreturned voice mail or e-mail messages result in a great deal of anxiety.

A lawyer who quickly returns a reporter’s phone call and anticipates requests for copies of lawsuits instantly creates goodwill. The lawyer gains a reputation as someone the reporter can depend on. Just as judges compare notes about attorneys who appear before them, journalists share sources and tell one another which ones are likely to call back.

To summarize: Select your candidates for news releases as carefully as you pick your clients. Write the release in a clear, concise manner, and be sure to include content that helps the reporter verify the information. Communicate with your client before the news release is circulated to the relevant contacts, and be considerate of the reporter, who is often working under a tight deadline.

Geri L. Dreiling is president of Legal Media Matters, a St. Louis-based public relations and multimedia
writing firm created by a lawyer and aimed at helping lawyers. Legal Media Matters works with attorneys to craft and execute media relations strategies and promote their practices.

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