In Defense of the Press Release
I detect a trend where PR firms are no longer bothering to write press releases. That's hip with the times. But I find they're writing blog posts instead. Or sending over slide decks. Or arranging Webex briefings. And sending white papers. This is not an improvement because it doesn't get me the most important information quickly.
In this post, I will discuss how we arrived here, and reason why public relations agencies are wrong to discontinue the production and distribution of press releases.
During the early 2000s, while I was running a communications agency for seven years, there was chatter about "the changing face of public relations." The conversations among my colleagues in the industry darted between a variety of "new" types of press release, inspired by blogs:
- direct-to-consumer press releases;
- social media press releases;
- the rise of the digital press kit (DPK) or electronic press kit (EPK);
- how to craft press releases for Web 2.0; and
- even how to get along without press releases or the press itself.
Blogs were fresh. We talked about the "blogosphere." Digg and Technorati were popular aggregators, and the latter offered rankings by which bloggers could measure success. For the PR industry, the opportunity to skip the gatekeepers (media) and take content directly to consumers was enticing. This led many publicists to exclaim, "The press release is dead!"
The transition to corporate blogs, which we now place under owned media, was accelerated by seasoned pros like Steve Rubel, who was snapped up by Edelman in 2006, marketing guru Seth Godin, and former Apple chief evangelist Guy Kawasaki. At the time Blogging Heroes was published, Rubel's influential blog, Micro Persuasion, had 45,000 subscribers, and Kawasaki had 21,000 subscribers. Godin never released his subscriber numbers, as he was then somewhat disdainful of the attention paid to traffic statistics, but he was, and is, widely cited.
Rubel wrote a somewhat controversial blog post in 2005 titled "Blogs are the New Press Release" in which he observed a trend toward the end of the press release:
"People want the facts but they also want to hear the news in a human voice, not from an automaton – 'we are pleased' quotes won't cut it anymore, sorry. And the phrase 'today announced' will one day fall by the wayside."
His prognostications never went unchallenged though. Rich Levin, an award-winning brand journalist, took him to task in an interview on Naked Conversations coauthor Shel Israel's blog:
"PR practitioners need to be masters of multicasting; that is, capable of spinning a story simultaneously as a news release, a query, a blog post, a blog comment, a byline, a phone call, a flyer, a TV or radio interview, a wire feed, a billboard, a text message, an e-mail, a T-shirt, a pen with a slogan, etc.
The people and firms who master multicasting will be the survivors. Anyone who chooses to narrowcast or over emphasize one medium over another or, worse, suggest that the medium is the message, as Steve is suggesting, will shoot themselves in the head."
Rubel later clarified he only meant the volume of press releases on wire services would decrease within five years. But I don't believe this prediction held true. In 2009, both PRNewswire and BusinessWire were sending out 1,000 press releases every day, and in 2015, Cision, which has grown exponentially of late, acquired PRNewswire for $841 million.
Godin, in particular, advocated "thinking like a blogger." He distinguished between publicity and PR, encouraging his readers to shed the press release (publicity) in favor of storytelling (public relations), as though they were mutually exclusive. He likened the press release to a hammer, in the context of "to a person with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail."
I have asked Guy Kawasaki for advice from time to time, so I have a lot of respect for him and, fortunately, I don't remember that he ever pooh-poohed the press release. In fact, in 2010, he added PRNewswire to his Alltop aggregator. But the success of his blog in the early 2000s seemed to be hard proof to others that blogging was the way of the world.
Despite the doomsayers, I stood firm, always advising my clients to ensure they have press releases regularly written and ready. Of course, we commanded rates between $250 and $500 per press release—that was just for writing them—which wasn't bad for maybe an hour's work.
What we found, however, was that clients wanted to avoid the costs of wire services. For example, BusinessWire charges $760 for the first 400 words, an additional $195 for every 100 words thereafter, $425 for attaching the first multimedia file, and $225 for each additional file.
Let's do some basic math: 400 to 500 words is the average length of a page, and visuals increase the average engagement rate by ten times. A press release with three attachments could therefore cost nearly or more than $2,000, not including the cost of producing those assets. For busy companies, clients might want to send out 5 to 10 press releases per month, so they were looking at a line item in their budgets ranging between $10,000 and $20,000 per month on a tactic that might generate an average of only 18 social media shares.
But there are two problems with this thinking:
- Wire distribution is not essential to deriving value from press releases.
- Social media shares are inadequate and inappropriate for measuring performance.
In fact, wire distribution may not be productive at all. Few writers individually trawl wires for stories, and there are no longer SEO benefits to generating links.
The purpose of a press release, too, is not to be shared on social media. The style of writing is formal and the audience is completely different. Sharing press releases on Facebook removes them from their natural environment, so of course they will perform poorly. Why would you then measure their performance by the number of social media shares? Makes no sense.
No, the press release should be treated as an opportunity to work with and support journalists, reporters, editors, interviewers, and other writers.
When offered to writers directly, the press release is a resource, and all at once: a narrative fact sheet; an implicit request for how its news should be framed; and a historical record. A good writer will use the press release as a starting point to investigate the news, discover new sources, and document facts and dates, and a good writer will use a collection of press releases to decipher changes in the company, leading to analyses of market trends that might be shaping or influencing hiring decisions and product announcements. And without distribution, press releases are still owned media content for press kits and online press rooms.
Press Kits and Online Press Rooms
Takahashi also mentioned in his Facebook post that agencies aren't even sending fact sheets.
"I may be old fashioned, but I find that having a press release in hand, as well as material from an interview, leads to a more accurate story that also focuses on the news.
Blog posts are often breezy and conversational, and very light on the facts. Maybe a fact sheet would be just as useful. But the absence of both a fact sheet and a press release leads me to ask many unnecessary questions over email, and that's plain frustrating. So don't kill the old press release yet, unless you've got something better."
This says to me that not only are PR firms not bothering with press releases, they are not bothering with developing press kits or building and operating online press rooms.
I am flummoxed by this notion because, in my experience, developing press kits and online press rooms can be very lucrative, or at least have a very high return on investment. At the low end, a press kit for a small business might run up to $2,000, but at the high end—with graphic design, photography, and web development factored in—they could run between $5,000 and $15,000. Online press rooms themselves are web development projects, and depending on the level of sophistication, these projects can bring in between $5,000 and $50,000.
Generally speaking, both in-house and external public relations organizations have small budgets, especially relative to what companies spend on advertising and marketing.
Source: How much should you spend on PR? (PR Daily)
For struggling outside firms, I would imagine these projects would be attractive. But I understand that longer-term contracts, like managing corporate blogs, are safer opportunities. Press kits and online press rooms do not involve retainer income, and may only be projects that are available once per year per client, which certainly disincentivizes their pursuit.
However, there is tremendous long-term public relations value in their production.
First of all, the time spent on creating a press kit is time spent learning about the client, their organization, their people, and their businesses. This is all information that can be used over and over down the line to shorten turnaround times on, yes, press releases and other content, to inform strategies, and to choose tactics for campaigns that best fit the client.
I have always believed the more we know about a client, the better we can perform; and the better we do perform, the longer we can retain that client. Clients respect your value as a communications professional when the expertise that you offer is not merely "some amount of years in social media management" but rather real expertise in the inner workings and history of their business; and the press kit serves as a platform for developing that expertise.
"…increasing customer retention rates by 5% increases profits by 25% to 95%."
—The Value of Keeping the Right Customers, HBR, October 29, 2014
More than a means to develop client relations, however, an up-to-date, comprehensive press kit, which should include a fact sheet, executive bios, photos, logos, a recent interview, a recent press release, and so on, shows that the company wants writers to:
- care about what the company is doing now; and
- produce high-quality coverage that really matters.
When a writer is looking for an assignment, or working on a profile or interview, the press kit should be an encouraging starting point. If the press kit exists but is only a collection of logos in various file formats, and the information needed has to be synthesized from blog posts, slide decks, and WebEx briefings, writing about the client is just that much more difficult. Writers are not averse to difficult assignments, but there is only so much time in the day. So, the client may still receive some coverage, but likely nothing of the sort that moves the needle.
In addition, an active, interactive, and populated press room conveys the image of a healthy, productive company worth serious coverage. Proactively providing tools and resources that writers need establish the client as an accessible, cooperative, and helpful source. And it turns out that writers like working with people who like working with them.
Let's review. What are the possible outcomes from writing press releases, developing digital or electronic press kits, and building and operating online press rooms?
- Better informed communications and public relations strategies
- Closer relationships with clients, journalists, and other stakeholders
- Higher quality journalistic coverage, such as profiles and interviews
- Wider consumer and public interest in clients and what they offer
- Increased sales and greater overall bottom-line impact
- More agency capabilities and demonstrable expertise
- Additional revenue to keep the lights on
What are those outcomes worth?