Please release me from the ubiquitous press release

reflects on the news release – and particularly the concept of the social media release.  But a few things surprise me about discussions on press releases:

  • There is a presumption of a “right way”, an only way to write/produce a press release
  • It is generally used as a mass mailing approach with little attempt to tailor for different journalists or media
  • Even when emailed or used on a website, the “traditional” rules of printed press releases dominate (despite some relating to pre-computer press processes)
  • Journalists always act as if the release is to provide them with information to develop a story, when in reality a large percentage are reproduced verbatim.
    The press release is just a tool – a convenient way (supposedly) of communicating information to the media, who are a gate-keeper to other audiences.  That’s the PR perspective – for the media, it should be a convenient way of obtaining news and other information from an organisation to inform them, stimulate them to write a story, or provide background information (for example).

    So, some journalists may wish to just reproduce releases (as in the case of many B2B or free publications).  Here, public relations practitioners would be advised to write the story in the style of the publication, including quotes and other information to create a relevant, interesting and not overly puffy release. 

    But, other media don’t want to be spoonfed.  They want your organisation’s position on an issue or topic and use this information in creating their own take.  They might just want a simple statement from the PR office – the official perspective. 

    Or they may need a release that includes all the relevant information and supporting or background data, etc.  Something a  aims to do with links and so forth.  A key factor will be their deadlines – they want it quickly, of course, but is that to report immediately or to help in developing a more insightful story.

    This multi-media, in-depth approach is also helpful for new product launches – such as cars – where a lot of detailed material may be required by some journalists.  Others though, will want the abridged version – some even the “cut and paste” option.

    Then, PRs may work with an individual journalist to develop a specific story – which will involve dialogue, providing statements and other information, organising visits, interviews and so on

    Then there is the “release” as the online record for future reference or to respond to ongoing requests for corporate positions on issues or facts on products.

    Yes, this “personalised approach” takes longer than a blanket release – but will pay dividends in credibilty and gratitude from the media. 

    Regardless of the purpose, I’m not a fan of embedding graphics or logos in emailed releases – the focus should be on the content.  Again this is something that an RSS feed from a media site could enable where the content is separated from the onsite formatting.

I know press releases might seem an old topic – but given that we are still expected to teach and assess writing them as a, often the, primary tool in public relations, it is appropriate to reflect and challenge their purpose and approach.  Do you agree?

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Heather Yaxley

Heather Yaxley is passionate about PR - teaching the CIPR qualifications, lecturing part-time at Bournemouth University and running the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA). I'm undertaking a PhD looking at Career Strategies in PR. I love sharing ideas and knowledge - connecting news and views by blogging on public relations and educational developments, especially relating to accelerated and active learning. I'm also a published author, qualified trainer and experienced consultant.

10 thoughts on “Please release me from the ubiquitous press release”

  1. Heather, Can’t find anything I really disagree with in what you’ve said here … I do think we’re on the same page, or nearly so.

    But, there is one thing … I actually feel a bit ‘cheated’ when a journalist simply reproduces a press release. Strange? I know there are those p.r. practitioners who sit back and chortle, “Can’t get any better than that …” when they see a near-verbatim reproduction of a release they’ve written, the headline almost exactly their wording; I’ve heard it, more than once in my few years in the media relations end of the news biz.

    But, I’m looking for added value to what I write in a release. I want to engage the mind of the journalist, to spark some interest and thought, to get them excited about what I’m trying to convey. I feel very much more validated if the journalist takes the ideas from the release and really runs with it, develops their own story. I want some “buy in” from the journalist, not just regurgitation, or I feel I haven’t really done my job for the client.

    I think you’d agree that how best to achieve that goal is what’s at issue. Can a tool or a format for a release do this on its own? Probably not … Can it help? I would think so and finding appropriate formats or templates for today’s media is what these discussions are all about. Ultimately, however, the ‘news’ has got to be in a news release, whatever the template, and the information has got to be communicated not only concisely, but in a way that makes the key message stick in the journalist’s mind … and prompts them to take it and make it their own.

    What do you think?

  2. I had a conversation with some automotive journalist students earlier in the year who were surprised when I said that I didn’t like seeing my releases reproduced exactly. Although in honesty it depends on the publication – there are some that reproduce anything, so in which case there is no value to me in the coverage (and I’m sure to the readers).

    But when a publication and/or journalist that I rate uses my headline or includes a phrase that I generated, then I do get a buzz. I remember launching a Toyota LandCruiser model with the headline “Sleepless in Solihull” (reference to LandRover and the movie which was current then). It got picked up everywhere and was good because it was also a key message.

    I think there are things you can do to make your story interesting and memorable so that the journalist wants to pass it on. Ideally they will add their own slant and take (like bloggers do), which I believe adds credibility. But of course, not losing the message or essence of what you aimed to communicate.

    If you are targeting many journalists, then you undoubtedly do have to send the idea in writing. But I wouldn’t be precious about that being in a formal release, a friendly email or on the side of a cow, if it did the job.

    Often talking with contact to develop an exclusive or series of exclusives can be a good way to get greater coverage – and actually stimulate other media pick-up. A good story can gain credibility and other journalists (and bloggers of course) will be happy to pick up and run with a story rather than seeking to break it.

    Generally, I am in agreement with you, and would much sooner interest a journalist in a story and then develop it into something of value to both of us. I prefer quality over quantity – it isn’t about the number of cuttings, but the impact of the coverage in my view.

  3. Maybe not so relevant in our portfolio hospital wing scenario but I would love to include a reference to a social media release in my rationale – how interesting. Never seen that kind of template before, fascinating.

  4. Heather, I see we ARE on the same page. Though for me, having a release I’ve written run verbatim or nearly still feels a bit like shooting fish in a barrel — not much sport in it. And you’re right … in the end it doesn’t matter if you’ve gotten across the message in a formal release, in a phone pitch … whatever works.

    Jill, here’s a template that has circulated widely over here on our side of the pond: http://www.shiftcomm.com/downloads/smprtemplate.pdf. I’ve seen variations and mutations available elsewhere.

  5. Thanks Michael, I don’t find that the link above opens though. I’ve tried to email a few times but it has bouced back. Maybe I am doing something wrong.

  6. There is an ethical issue too.

    Why do PR people need to communicate to a public via a journalist?

    There is direct communication, content that can be available to journalists should they wish to find it and socil interaction (on and off line).

    If the content is not compelling do we need journalists to give it more spin?

    There is one reason – a public record – because we have saddled ourselves with it.

    If an organisation is not exciting, interesting, unique, full of fab people it is not worth working for and will not survive. All organisations have interesting content for conversations that show their values to good effect in conversations.

    All the rest is bling, scam or hype marketing or petting journalists.

  7. David – you are absolutely right. I wish more PR practitioners would realise what exists within organisations and focus on conversing about those great stories. Too often we seem to feel a need to be “creative” with ideas that are stale and external to the real values of our organisations.

  8. Why do PR people need to communicate to a public via a journalist?

    Well, gee, let’s see … as I recall there is something called “direct marketing” which goes straight to the public already. And, unfortunately, a lot of that is little more than “bling, scam or hype marketing” that the public doesn’t seem to be able to differentiate, “wisdom of the crowd” or not.

    P.R. people work with journalists precisely because the media are supposed to be equipped by virtue of their coverage of subjects and beats to evaluate and cut through the bling, scam and hype marketing. When I was a journalist, I certainly knocked back a lot of b.s. pitches precisely because they were obviously hyped to the max. You can smell it a mile away … all that marketing speak!

    If you can get a real bona fide journalist to look a what the organization has to offer and agree that it has some value and to actually write a story about it, there is an automatic gain in credibility that sets it head and shoulders above a simple release posting on a website or hyped marketing gimmick.

    I’d say David’s suggestion that all p.r. people do is spend their time in the unethical “petting” of journalists shows either how little he understands about p.r. or how low the estimation of journalists (and p.r. practitioners) may have sunk in the UK.

  9. I don’t think it is an either/or situation – and believe we need quality of content whether communicating directly with publics or via a mediated source. The “receiver” (public or journalist) has an increased ability to “pull” or engage in two-way conversations and PR needs to be in a better position to ensure valuable information is available for those who are seeking it.

    However, we cannot simply think that cream will rise to the top and that information will be found without some effort on the part of an organisation to engage in a pro-active way.

    I believe that means a move towards being interested in those we are communicating with, understanding their requirements and ensuring we are helping inform their decisions/opinions/behaviour in a credible, trustworthy and open manner. That means respecting those we communicate with, helping them achieve their objectives, thinking more about conversations and building relationships.

    Audiences may converse direct with us (eg online) or hear about us via mediators (bloggers, journalists, advocates/activists, opinion leaders…).

    Where “bling” comes in is in the quality of communications – shouting at, providing meaningless messages, pointless stunts, junk mail, unwelcome email/texts, wallpaper “ambient” media, etc. This should be avoided – even if some of the public/media cannot differentiate quality, many can.

    If I can credibly converse direct with my public – that should be my focus. But having the support of third-parties (such as journalists), and their ability to reach a wider community may be an equally valid strategy.

    The ethical stance of PR practitioners must be to gain and keep the trust of the media enabling them to act as journalists not viewing them as people to be manipulated as automatic disseminators of our puff.

    There are too many PRs and journalists in the UK who rely on lazy press releases with stories that are simply spun, or use “petting” tactics of lunches/exotic trips/free gifts to get coverage.

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