For Immediate Rewrite: Lessons on press-release writing from our good friends up north

"'Didn't work'? You weren't even close. I'd horsewhip you if I had a horse." Outside of a phone booth, a press release is the worst way to communicate. Inside of a phone booth, it’s too dark to read.

OK, that didn’t work. But the point is the same: There are damn few good reasons to put out a press release. They’re as outdated as Polaroid flash cubes, and not nearly as illuminating.

But if you (or your boss) still crave the illusion of productivity that the whole writing-editing-approving-sending process generates, here’s a quick lesson to help you avoid embarrassing yourself. Assisting me in today’s lesson are the good folks from The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, located right on the brim of America’s hat—Toronto, Canada.

Last Fall CAMH uncovered some stop-the-presses news in their annual survey of substance use trends. According to their research, young people in Ontario were 30% more likely to smoke dope than drink alcohol before driving. Thirty percent!

But in their typical we’re-so-nice-you-can’t-help-but-like-us Canadian way, they led with good news, only alluding to “several areas of concern.”

For Immediate Release – November 28, 2012 – (Toronto) – Most adults are drinking responsibly, and fewer are smoking or using illicit substances – but several areas of concern were found in the 2011 CAMH Monitor survey of Ontario substance use trends, released today by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).

And when they finally did get around to the good stuff, they reported it thus:

Nine per cent of 18- to 29-year-olds report driving after cannabis use, versus six per cent in this age range who report drinking two or more drinks and driving.

Soft as a baby's skull.

Lesson #1 – Don’t bury your lede. Put the most important point you have in the first sentence, and write it in a way that locks my eyeballs onto the screen. At eight seconds, our average attention span is shorter than that of a gold fish. You don’t have much time to make me want to read on.

“What if what you have to say isn’t eyeball-locking?” Great question. Simple answer: Don’t put out a release.