This release hits home

Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston nails features for PR

It was a good story: More than 1,000 New Englanders would soon have safe, decent, affordable places to live, thanks to the Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston’s Affordable Housing Program.

This release hits home

Home, sweet home Mark Zelermyer turns a stodgy bank report into a friendly, fascinating feature-style story. Image by Joss Woodhead

But PR convention demands that we reduce good stories to hierarchical blurtations of fact. And that’s what Mark Zelermyer, the bank’s vice president and director of corporate communications, did with the first draft of his news release covering the story.

But by the end of my NOT Your Father’s News Release Master Class, Mark had totally rewritten his release, taking the story from blah to brilliant. What can you learn from his before and after?

Get a refresher on the feature-style structure.

1. Headline and deck

Mark started out focusing on “us and our stuff”:

FHLB BOSTON AWARDS $30.3 MILLION FOR AFFORDABLE HOUSING THROUGHOUT NEW ENGLAND
48 Initiatives Will Result in More Than 1,000 Units in Six States

But his rewrite focuses on the impact, not on the event, of the program.

MORE THAN 1,000 NEW ENGLANDERS TO GAIN AFFORDABLE HOUSING
Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston Awards $30.3 Million to 48 Projects

Notice his hierarchy in the second version: benefits to the community in the headline, bank program in the deck. Steal that.

2. Introduction

The introduction has three parts: the lead, the nut graph and the background section.

A. Lead. In his first draft, Mark crams all of the W’s into a fact pack lead.

Besides being boring, at 80 words, it’s too long for human consumption. That creates an obstacle at the top of the release that readers have to climb over to get into the story:

The Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston awarded $30.3 million to support 48 affordable housing initiatives in the six New England states. Of this amount, $14.2 million was awarded as Affordable Housing Program grants and subsidies, with the balance coming as subsidized advances, or loans. The funds were awarded through member financial institutions to projects that will create or preserve 1,004 units of affordable rental and ownership housing for households earning at or below 80 percent of area median income.

Plus, may I ask, who cares about “us and our stuff”?

The second version shows instead of tells, focusing on specific details about the program’s outcomes. That pulls readers into the story, and it communicates better than a wall of abstraction. Plus, at 24 words, it creates a bridge into the story instead of an obstacle to reading:

A shoe factory turned into apartments for low-income families. Homes with onsite medical care for brain-injury survivors. Flats for young adults leaving foster care.

B. Nut graph. Here’s where you put the story into a nutshell.

Mark didn’t write a nut graph for his traditional news release, because inverted pyramids don’t have nut graphs. But in his revision, Mark summarizes the story elegantly into a 26-word nut graph:

These are some of the 1,004 households who will move into safe, decent housing thanks to the Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston’s Affordable Housing Program.

C. Background section. In the background section, you’ll widen your lens and provide context for your story.

In the first draft, Mark gives some context in the quote, then shares perhaps more information than anyone who doesn’t work at the bank cares to know about how the program works.

“Availability of affordable housing remains a major issue here in New England, and partnerships like these help provide real solutions,” said Edward A. Hjerpe III, the Bank’s president and chief executive officer. “These initiatives will not only give more families safe, decent, and affordable homes, but they will also create jobs and boost economic development throughout the region.”

AHP funds are used to help pay construction, acquisition, or rehabilitation costs. Member financial institutions work with local developers to apply for AHP funding, which is awarded through a competitive scoring process.

That’s a lot of background, aka the blah-blah-blah. One problem with inverted pyramids is that they invite you to overdo the background.

In the second version, Mark streamlines the “how it works” section into a short paragraph, then follows up with the context in a more manageable quote:

FHLB Boston awarded more than $30 million to 48 projects for low- and very-low income households. The program is funded each year with 10 percent of the Bank’s net income.

“Investing in affordable housing does more than provide homes,” said Edward A. Hjerpe III, the Bank’s president and chief executive officer. “It creates jobs and boosts the economy across our region.”

Body

Here’s where you tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em.

The juicy details are buried in the body of Mark’s first version:

Funds awarded in the 2012 round, which range from $25,000 to $4.6 million per project, will support a wide range of initiatives, including:

  • Habitat for Humanity energy-efficient ownership homes.
  • Supportive housing for 18- to 22-year-olds After they leave foster care. All units will be targeted to individuals earning below 30 percent of the area median income.
  • Housing with on-site health care and mental health services for survivors of brain injury and related cognitive disorders.
  • Rehabilitation of a former shoe factory mill building into 42 rental units for low-and very low-income households.

The following communities will benefit from FHLB Boston AHP funds:

  • Connecticut: Bloomfield, Bridgeport, Niantic, and Stamford.
  • Maine: Bangor, Brunswick, Dover Foxcroft, Ellsworth, and Houlton.
  • Massachusetts: Acton, Amherst, Boston, Chelsea, Danvers, Falmouth, Florence, Gilbertville, Haydenville, Lawrence, Lowell, Lynn, New Bedford, Orleans, Rockport, Salem, Turners Falls, and West Tisbury.
  • New Hampshire: Concord, Dover, Franklin, Marlborough, Newport, and Wolfeboro.
  • Rhode Island: Coventry, Cumberland, East Greenwich, Newport, Pawtucket, Providence, Richmond, and Warwick.
  • Vermont: Burlington, Hancock, Manchester Center, Rutland, and Vergennes.

Note how he lightened these fascinating facts and moved them to the top of the revised piece for the lead.

The body in the revision covers just the facts of importance to people — and, OK, Google — who may be seeking information about housing in their own communities:

This year’s awards range from $25,000 to $4.6 million per project. Funds are awarded through member banks for projects in the following cities and towns:

  • Connecticut: Bloomfield, Bridgeport, Niantic, and Stamford.
  • Maine: Bangor, Brunswick, Dover Foxcroft, Ellsworth, and Houlton.
  • Massachusetts: Acton, Amherst, Boston, Chelsea, Danvers, Falmouth, Florence, Gilbertville, Haydenville, Lawrence, Lowell, Lynn, New Bedford, Orleans, Rockport, Salem, Turners Falls, and West Tisbury.
  • New Hampshire: Concord, Dover, Franklin, Marlborough, Newport, and Wolfeboro.
  • Rhode Island: Coventry, Cumberland, East Greenwich, Newport, Pawtucket, Providence, Richmond, and Warwick.
  • Vermont: Burlington, Hancock, Manchester Center, Rutland, and Vergennes.

Wrapup

Mark ends with a call to action in each version:

For details on each initiative, please visit www.fhlbboston.com/ahp.

But wait! There’s more …

In addition to making his story more compelling, Mark also make it more than 30% more readable. To do so, he:

  • Slashed the length of the lead paragraph by 70%.
  • Cut word count by 37%.
  • Streamlined sentences by 25%.
  • Reduced passive voice by 77 percentage points.

It’s no surprise that Mark suggested we change the name of our PR-writing Master Class to “The News Release Makeover.”

Let’s see yours! Please post or link to your original news release and revised feature release in the comments section below.

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