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“You Had Me at the Subject Line”: New Reporter Survey on Press Releases Offers Best Pitching Practices as 100 Journalists Weigh In on How to Disrupt the Press Release

A newly released study by communications firm Greentarget finds that reporters and editors still value press releases, but they want releases that are succinct, direct and stripped of bells and whistles. Give journalists contact information, pertinent details, a clear angle and authentic quotes and they will pay attention.

Among the key findings:

  • More than a third of the journalists get story ideas from press releases. And 88 percent say they find value in those releases.
  • Journalists are still looking to press releases for quotes—but want them to be genuine and substantive.
  • Overall, journalists today still view press releases as valuable sources of information and story ideas—but they want that information packaged more efficiently.
  • Nearly 70 percent of the journalists surveyed spend less than a minute reading new press releases. That’s why they want releases they can read in a glance. An effective release, should quickly tell them who is involved, what is new, why it matters and how to reach the principal spokespeople. An example flagged by multiple journalists was police departments, which tend to produce concise, unadorned and easy-to-read releases.
  • 53 percent of the journalists said they’d find it helpful if the key facts in a release were presented in a bulleted format.

“These insights are instructive because they are drawn not from the folks who write press releases, but from the journalists we hope will read them,” said Aaron Schoenherr, founding partner of Greentarget, in a news release. “The notion that press releases should be written as if they are going to appear somewhere word-for-word has always struck us as strange and yet most releases are still written this way. The demands and pressure facing journalists today have changed and, as much as I’m comforted by the tried and true inverted pyramid style of press releases, we should challenge ourselves as a profession to evolve as well.”

What, for example, makes for the most substantive quotes? “The best quotes are authentic which often runs counter to the process most communications professionals use to create them in the first place,” says Schoenherr. “If you’re looking to develop a genuine, substantive quote, the answer is to create a process to solicit it naturally from the source. Interview the source you’re quoting yourself and see what resonates. Once you have something to work with, consider providing a couple of different options within the release. The key is to approach the release as a tool that the journalist can actually work with as opposed to a pre-written story that is going to run verbatim.”

More study highlights:

  • A flood of information: 45 percent of survey respondents get 50 or more releases per week—and 21 percent of the group say they get at least 100 a week.
  • You had me at hello: 79 percent of journalists said the subject line impacts their interest in reading a press release. “I think the subject line should simply reflect the spirit and focus of the release in a manner that helps journalists keep their flooded email inboxes organized,” Schoenherr says. “Based on what we’ve heard from journalists in our focus groups, getting creative or cute with a subject line isn’t the answer. If you’re spending considerable time fretting over crafting a subject line that gets attention, your news probably doesn’t warrant a press release.”
  • A little bird told me: Almost three quarters of journalists surveyed use Twitter as part of their daily work. And 46 percent said they’d be open to getting press releases over the social network, if releases were adapted appropriately.
  • Be first in line: 44 percent of respondents prefer to get press releases in the morning—probably because they are more likely to be on deadline in the afternoon. But 48 percent said time of day doesn’t matter.
  • Beat the clock: A full 69 percent of journalists spend on average less than a minute reading press releases. Another 30 percent spend 1 to 5 minutes.
  • Toss aside: Not useful—35 percent said the boilerplate language at the bottom, 26 percent said the quotes and 19 percent said the lead. Those top three categories comprise 80 percent of the group.
  • That can be annoying: It’s no surprise that journalists’ biggest pet peeves are releases that don’t pertain to their beats or aren’t relevant to the audiences they serve. The third and fourth most common complaints are that releases are poorly written and too long.

The 2014 Disrupting the Press Release study is based on a survey of 100 U.S. journalists and a series of focus groups with reporters and editors in Chicago and New York. Download a summary of the research report here.

Edited by Richard Carufel

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