Headless Bodies, Topless Bars; What Makes a Headline Legendary?

Headless Body in Topless BarIn 1983,  the New York Post headline “Headless Body in Topless Bar” became news in and of itself, claiming the still undisputed title of  greatest American tabloid headline—evah.

For PR writers, headlines are no simple grab for attention. There are rules to writing press release headlines for media publication, and “Headless Body in Topless Bar” adheres to none of them. Since press releases are the primary name of my game, I get my creative fixes elsewhere—my blog, for instance.  When it comes to writing traditional news releases, I follow the rules because I like to eat.

Are traditional news releases still important to a well-rounded PR and marketing plan, even with the increased use of alternative marketing venues like social media and blogs?  Yes.

Is the headline critical to your press release’s success? Yes.

Just in case you aren’t familiar with my opinion on the importance of traditional press releases in any media campaign, here it is: only amateurs diss the traditional press release. Sure, they’re a lot of work and require real journalistic skills to properly execute; but in a world of self-serving marketing campaigns slathered in superlatives, the traditional press release stands alone.

When properly executed, the press release delivers legitimacy to your company’s key message and image. The world’s most important and successful corporations and organizations continue to issue press releases daily, often several in a day because it’s the appropriate format for relaying information directly to the press.  Remember, it’s journalists and editors who decide whether you have something newsworthy to say or are simply looking for free publicity for your thinly veiled ad, and it’s journalists who will decide your press release’s fate.

If you haven’t already, it’s important to start separating PR from marketing theoretically, because the two are not interchangeable. When tasked with writing a press release, you want to make sure your headlines are as expertly crafted as the body.

Here are six ways to nail a journalist-friendly press release headline:

1. Make it informative: One of the biggest mistakes non-journalists make when attempting to write a press release is mistaking it for marketing copy. When it comes to press releases, newsworthiness trumps clever sales writing every day; consider the headline a journalist’s bullshit indicator, which it is. The headline establishes whether you’re sharing newsworthy information or selling your client’s widget. Save the clever riddles and rhetorical questions for social media or marketing headlines if you really want your press release to be, you know, picked up.

2. No more than 120 characters. Although some purists would like to disregard the role of SEO in traditional press release creation, that’s not an option. Search engines only index the first 65 characters of a headline, making it critical that your most important keyword (as well as the company name)  appears within that range. Remember,  search engines place higher importance is placed on keywords placed closest to the beginning of the headline. While we’re talking keywords, one of the best methods commonly used for page title optimization is to use generic keywords and long tail keywords. Combining the two helps target a wider range of customers looking for more specific and targeted information.

3. Get to know—and avoid—spammy keywords. There’s a laundry list of words that trigger spam filter alerts, even when the use of the word is legit. Some such spam alert words are “free,” opportunity,” “mortgage” and “order now.” Unless you’re going for tabloid sensationalism, avoid needless or indulgent punctuation (like capital letters and exclamation marks) which can not only trigger spam filters, they’ll get your press release tossed to the circular file by journalists and editors faster than you can say “OH NO!”

4. Keep hyperlinks out of headlines (and summary paragraphs.) It’s good to use embedded links sparingly in a press release so readers have quick access to your website or product information, but save them for the body of the release and use them sparingly. Legitimate press release distribution services do not accept hyperlinks in headlines or summary paragraphs at all, but for those of you who self distribute through email or another channel, placing a link in a headline is a sure-fire way to encourage readers to run for the hills. Keep hyperlinks to a minimum in your press release—one link per 100 words max, although I recommend just one or two links total. Search engines are also suspicious of hyperlinks and will mark a press release with too many live links as Web spam

5. Keep it focused. Instead of trying to cram several elements into one headline, take a deep breath and remind yourself of  your intention here: to relay news to the press. If a company launches a new product line, don’t discuss the product line’s individual items in the headline; the news is the launch of the product line. Use a summary paragraph to say more than your headline can accommodate, and use the press release body to tell the full story. If you consider one element more important than the news of the launch itself, write it that way. For instance, “Hasbro Launches New Superhero Action Figure Line” can be rewritten to say “Hasbro Includes Spiderman in New Action Figure Line” if Spiderman is too important to leave out of the headline.

6. Make it count. Resist the urge to bypass the rules of press release headline writing because you have a really clever idea you’d rather use. Do you want the press release to showcase your cleverness, or to tell your client’s news? There are plenty of options for showcasing your creative writing skills online, but there is only one option for writing a press release capable of making it through the media gauntlet.

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