What is a press release?

The recent Techcrunch criticism of press releases by Robin Wauters has so far generated over 300 comments and more than 1300 retweets.  Waters believes the press release is “a thing of the distant past in their current form” – and complains about how they all look the same and use the same tired words, which are largely untrue (leading, innovative, award-winning, etc).

image The history of the modern press release is largely traced back to Ivy Lee’s actions in 1906, when he is credited with having “persuaded the directors of the Pennsylvania Railroad that the press should be given all the facts on all railway accidents” (Harrison & Moloney, 2004).

Russell & Bishop (2008) remind us of Lee’s famous Declaration of Principles, which set out a modus operandi for working with the press:

This is not a secret press bureau. All our work is done in the open. We aim to supply news. This is not an advertising agency; if you think any of our matter ought properly to go to your business office, do not use it. Our matter is accurate.  Further details on any subject treated will be supplied promptly, and any editor will be assisted most cheerfully in verifying directly any statement of fact. Upon inquiry, full information will be given to any editor concerning those on whose behalf an article is sent out. In brief, our plan is, frankly and openly, on behalf of business concerns and
public institutions, to supply to the press and public of the United States prompt and accurate information concerning subjects which it is of value and interest to the public to know about.  Corporations and public institutions give out much information in which the news point is lost to view. Nevertheless, it is quite as important to the public to have this news as it is to the establishments themselves to give it currency. I send out only matter every detail of which I am willing to assist any editor in verifying for himself. I am always at your service for the purpose of enabling you to obtain more complete information concerning any of the subjects brought forward in my copy.

This highlights part of the problem with the way that a press release is used – as Greg Jarboe wrote on its centenary – there are conflicting goals for the press release. 

Few of the millions of press releases sent out every day are supplying real news.  Most are seeking to promote something – which interestingly is the definition that a Google search reveals.

Lee’s Declaration gives clear direction into what a press release should be about, with reference to statement of fact, full information, accuracy, promptness – and emphasis that the information is “of value and interest to the public to know about.”

Ironically, it should be easier today to achieve these aims and provide links in the releases sent to media (including bloggers) to sources of information.  But instead, “press releases” focus more on hyperbole and woolly words that obfuscate rather than illuminate any sense of news.

Some of those commenting on the Techcrunch post ask for examples of good releases rather than criticisms.  A good release – from the media and public perspective – should simply tell the facts in a clear and informative way – much the same as any other effective communications.  Any quotes given should reflect a genuine perspective of the person cited and add value in terms of the opinion expressed. 

Lee believed over 100 years ago that a press release is not an advert.  However, if your product, service or organisation is undertaking something newsworthy, then you may well seek publicity through media coverage.  That’s still a legitimate use of a press release.

image Indeed, the media have reported on such publicity exercises since the 1800s if not before.  The French Industrial Exposition (1844), the Great Exhibition in London (1851) and the World’s Columbian Exposition – Chicago World Fair (1893) are each magnificent examples of how public and media interest was gained for publicity purposes. 

Part of the problem is that issuing a press release is a lazy option.  Too many companies and PR practitioners seem to think it is okay to spam journalists, bloggers and other possible influencers with a “press release” on the hope that some will reproduce your “key messages”. 

This sadly is not new – it has been common amongst hucksters promoting their wares since time began.  But the use of email and other new media has made it far too easy to write a “release”. 

In fact, everyone thinks they can do it – even if they’ve clearly never read anything about writing a press release.  Check out this example: Commit Dead and Slow Parts to history – it is not only lacking in any clear statement of fact, narrative or other communications value, it has a typing error for the client name in the first paragraph.

There is still a need for a clear, concise press release that helps communicate information clearly.  I believe this can have the objective of creating publicity for products, services and organisations, provided there is genuine newsworthiness in what is being communicated.

But as long as we have lazy approaches to getting out a release that is ill-conceived, badly written and with the sole purpose of “gaining free advertising” – Lee’s advise to the recipients on not using it will remain valid. 

As many of the comments on the Techcrunch post evidence, like badly targeted direct mail, as long as those who spam “releases” get even the smallest hit rate, they’ll keep on with this practice.

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Heather Yaxley PhD

Dr. Heather Yaxley is passionate about sustainable careers, reflective practice and professional development. I am a rhizomatic educator, practitioner, consultant, academic and scholar. As a qualified academic, I teach the CIPR professional qualifications with PR Academy and have experience teaching at various Universities. I run the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA) and my own strategic consultancy. I was awarded by PhD researching Career Strategies in Public Relations by Bournemouth University in 2017. I'm a published author, with books, chapters and academic papers to my name.

2 thoughts on “What is a press release?”

  1. Anyway, it’s not a “press” release. It’s a media or news release. Press releases are for the Press. And they’re not dead. Mainstream media is still bread-and-butter stuff – at least in Australia. Social media pundits would have you believe Twitter, etc, is/are the be-all.

  2. I stand corrected on the use of the word “press” versus “media” – but feel strongly a “news release” should be used only for real news, which undoubtedly few releases probably deliver.

    Whilst agreeing that mainstream media most definitely is still hugely influential and therefore, it is vital that information is sent to “traditional” journalists, I’d like to see the death of so many poor press releases.

    The Lost in Showbiz blog (http://lostintheshowbiz.blogspot.com/) is stuffed with the most appalling releases – often from big brands who presumably have paid their agencies hefty fees to write such dross. Shame the agencies can’t teach their staff to write in clear English, let alone understand the necessity for news or other worthy content in a release.

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