It's true. One would be hard pressed to find a piece of short-form communication that has been blamed for more heartburn, headache, and hemorrhages than a press release. Averaging a mere 450 words, there seems to be nothing more vile. They are received with the same appreciation as an STD.
"Did you get what I sent you?" asks the practitioner forced to make the call.
"Yeah, I did. I'm seeing my doctor today," mumbles the journalist before hanging up.
This type of exchange is a far cry from where the press release started. The first modern press release is most often attributed to Ivy Lee, whose agency released information regarding the 1906 Atlantic City train wreck. The idea was to provide a statement to journalists ahead of rumors and conjecture.
From this, the release began its steady evolution at the hands of practitioners who used it brilliantly, not so brilliantly, and sometimes with unscrupulous intent. The most common problems include bad writing, inaccurate information, irrelevant content, and one of the most liberal definitions of what constitutes news in existence today with the some companies believing that a ribbon cutting for a new office water cooler might find some vacant space in a daily. Maybe it will. Don't count on it.
A few years ago, I rounded up the ratio between press releases and news stories on any given day. On any given day, there were 4.3 million press releases distributed to fill 1.4 million news stories, most of which never originated from a press release. The odds weren't great for a press release.
Nowadays, it can be even more challenging. Even when news stories do originate from a press release, the impact is considerably less than it was ten years ago. Most media outlets only have a diluted share of a shrinking readership/viewership, one that is plagued by content overload.
The media have a hard enough time soliciting interest in viable breaking news stories let alone trying to pitch something less ubiquitous like a ribbon cutting for an office water cooler. So why bother?
Why the press release is an underrated workhorse.
From the perspective of the instructor, there isn't a better medium from which to teach students about public relations writing than a press release, even if I rarely call them that. I've always preferred the term 'news release' because it helps shape the content. News releases aren't about press plugs alone.
Determining News. Some practitioners think that pitches are enough. Sometimes they are. Sometimes they aren't. The difference is in the details. New releases challenge practitioners to determine the most viable news topics, find relevant data, and build a framework for something that can stand alone, be rewritten by the media, or spark a different approach to the story. Many pitches aren't news stories as much as they have the potential to be news stories. The legwork might not be complete.
Writing Stories. News releases don't necessarily feel like the most exciting assignments even if they require more strategic savvy and creative thinking to cut though the clutter. The structure, style, and format tend to be rigid without letting the writer off the hook of making the topic interesting. When you're only allotted about ten 2-3 sentence paragraphs, two of which are likely quotes, it requires considerable research, organization, accuracy, and clarity to get it right. Errors stand out easily.
Understanding Audiences. Public relations practitioners are mostly taught to think in terms of publics — various groups and stakeholders. But in order to write an effective news release they must not only consider whatever publics appear in their communication plan but also the audiences that subscribe to targeted magazines or media outlets and the journalists and editors (sometimes on a scale of one to one) who will ultimately decide whether a story that includes their organization will run.
Developing Relationships. News releases make for great introductions inside the organization while the practitioner researches subject matter experts and outside the organization while working with the media. Never mind the myth about public relations professionals who claim to have connections — any practitioner who takes press releases seriously can develop equally respectful media relationships overnight simply by providing what editors and journalists care about first — news.
The benefits, of course, don't begin and end with the practitioner. The organization benefits too.
Organizational Branding. Some marketing-minded practitioners might attempt to measure the outcome of every single release like an email blast, but the real value comes from the long-term game. The measure of your next ten or twenty or fifty news stories will tell the public (and your publics) about your organization than any single piece of content you produce. Ergo, what people hear about your company over the long haul will often determine what they say about you when it counts.
Professional Credibility. Even novice practitioners know that a third-party source, such as a member of the media, can elevate an organization's credibility. This is somewhat true today. But more than that, the press release itself (unless its news tone is abandoned for marketing fluff) has a broader reach than media. Whether published on a website or via wire services, analysts and other professionals pay attention to them too — especially in science, technology, and business.
The point is pretty simple — stop underestimating the news release and treating it like a throwaway plug that deserves about 15 minutes of an intern's time to toss together before firing out to a database of reporters who aren't the lease bit interested. Think of it instead like a content package written to get conversations started — inside and outside the organization. It's a framework for almost everything.
As such, if the news release can do it all when you do it right — achieve a short-term outcome, add to a long-term objective, brand and position, introduce and win over, spark conversation or create controversy, establish relationships inside and outside the company, raise questions and provide answers, establish credibility and record historical relevance, provide context and inspire content, feel official without being the final piece, and demonstrate a propensity (if not a passion) for solid communication — then why not love it? All it takes is a little bit of courage to expect better.