Press releases: time to put them on the endangered species list

Press releases: time to put them on the endangered species list

Phil Szomszor

Phil Szomszor

Back in the old days – and by old days, I mean more than 10 years ago – the press release was pretty much the only effective way for companies to distribute an announcement en masse. It was produced in a widely agreed format of headline, sub-head, first para, second para, quote etc., which still exists to this day.

The New York Times newsroom in 1942

An agency I used to work for charged them out at £600 a pop (it probably still does; inflation doesn’t seem to have hit agency fees) and we were tasked with writing as many as we could for our clients. They were printed out, put in envelopes and sent out to a mailing list compiled from a PR directory, before the Waymaker software came in and made its mark. In the tech world, you’d expect maybe a dozen cuttings from each release, which were studiously cut out from newspapers and magazines and glued into cuttings books.

The whole thing was about as sophisticated as making sausages.

Then, once software-based media directories took off and people realised that journalists preferred press releases via email, the whole thing started to go downhill. Once it effectively became free to distribute announcements, journalists started receiving them in their hundreds on a daily basis. Frustrated at not getting replies, PRs then started to call journalists to say, “have you got our press release?” It didn’t go down well. Still doesn’t.

Then, over a period of about three or four years, digital media took off. People started blogging initially, then social media came in. Twittr became Twitter – well, you know what happened there. Google bought YouTube. Myspace gave way to Facebook.

PRs clung on to the press release. Some bright spark came up with the “social news release” to allow other content to be included and for the release to be distributed. For the most part, it felt like press releases were just letting themselves go.

Meanwhile ad revenues were down in traditional media. Newspaper readership was plummeting, Trade publications went out of print. Trade titles either died at worst, or went online at best. Newsrooms of ten became newsrooms of one or two.

Still, PRs carried on doing their thing: sending out dozens of dozens of press releases. Only the number of cuttings from each press release has fallen somewhat.

Why is that? It’s not that there’s any less news out there. The problem, as we all know, is that people get their news in different ways these days. If there’s a breaking story, where’s the first place you go? Twitter. After that you’ll check things out on online news sites, blogs and so on. The one thing people hardly ever do is check out the press release.

People want news and insight faster, putting traditional media under a lot of pressure to get there first. Waiting to receive press releases by email seems almost quaintly old hat nowadays.

The future of press releases                                                          

But, despite presenting a pretty bad case for press releases, I still think they have their place – and it’s not just formal financial or legal announcements. The problem is that PRs usually misuse them. Most journalist surveys I’ve seen, say that they prefer receiving news or announcements from companies by press release. That’s fine. Send journalists press releases, just do it properly. They should be short, well-written statements with less puff and more attention to detail. Turn them around quickly and distribute them selectively, not en masse.

Consumers, bloggers and other interested parties probably don’t want to read a press release though. A blog post is much more effective as a communications medium. It isn’t restricted to the formatting conventions of a press release and can be written in more ‘human’ language. Plus, it’s a great place for journalists to link to (when was the last time you saw a journalist link to a press release?)

Personally, I don’t think the press release should be killed off – it still has a place in the communications toolkit. However, it really needs to be used in the right way in order to survive.

Do you think the press release is dead? Share your thoughts over on the Firefly Facebook poll.

This post was written by Phil Szomszor. Contact Phil on LinkedIn, Google+ or Twitter.

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