When is a press release not a press release?

Is this a press release? Ironically, this piece of puff for a potato puff arrived unsolicited in my email. It is from PWR New Media and as it instructs me to READ FULL RELEASE HERE >>> – I presume this company believes it to be a release.


Perhaps it is one of those SMNR things – the Social Media News Release – that Todd Defren of SHIFT Communications heralded back in 2006, as it contains links to social media and supplementary potato puff information.

The future of the press release (or media release if you prefer) – including its death or metamorphosis – isn’t normally something that I’m too concerned about. I do despair when teaching press release writing (let alone marking press release assignments) that the majority of examples lack any real evidence of news. My personal view is that I would not mind if I never had to write another one, but I realise that there is a need for a document of some sort to use for announcements, and particularly, for legal compliance, such as for financial results.

I’m yet to be convinced that most media, including bloggers and other online influencers, are that thrilled to receive an SMNR version, particularly when the big issue with the majority of releases churned out every day is that they are largely vacuous, poorly written, and badly targeted.

So it doesn’t really matter if it is easy to scan, includes elements that are easy to share and offers access to multimedia material (to paraphrase PR Newswire). That is all peripheral packaging if there is nothing of value inside the wrapping.

This is the main problem with probably 99.999999% of the releases sent out today – the content is increasingly viewed as less important than the drive to promote and seek SEO benefits. Indeed, a post on socialmedia today in March, states that “publishing news releases plays numerous other marketing roles” – most of which have nothing to do with the traditional role of a media release. Today the release is little more than a ruse to chase SEO and online ‘real estate’ – indeed the socialmedia today article claims the release creates “a visual sales page for your company”.

Also back in 2006, Tom Foremski stated: Die! Press release! Die! Die! Die! – spitting: “Press releases are nearly useless”, whilst arguing for a deconstructed version. In 2010, Advertising Age ran a piece by Simon Dumenco: RIP, the Press Release (1906-2010) – and Long Live the Tweet.

In February 2011, Mark Borkowski marked the rise of churnalism with a belief that “the press release is an endangered species, thanks to misuse”. Also in 2011, the opportunity for companies to break their own news was touted as another reason for killing the press release in an interview by CorpComms magazine with Nissan’s Dan Sloan.

By January 2012, we had Econsultancy discussing: The death of press release distribution services with “smarter ways to engage influencers online, such as social media newsrooms, multimedia content and real-time interaction enabled by social listening” argued as the choice of communicators.

In 2013, all these views seem to have been premature. But still the death knells sound – in February, the Irish Examiner reported a Social Newsmakers conference (no I don’t know what a newsmaker is either) with a quote:

“As a communications tool, the press release has become a garish neon light whose only objective is to interrupt and distract to gain attention”

Rather than a realistic assessment of fact, this was really another plug for social media as “a more direct and targeted avenue by which we can all work together to spread the message of what, where, why and how we are doing what we do.”

So the millions of pointless traditional releases, being sent out by email and news wires these days, are supplemented by millions more variants of interactive releases available through push and pull channels, as well as millions of tweets and other micro-announcements.

It could be viewed that the press release has finally morphed into a form of marketing – but actually, it always was. Despite the legend that Ivy Lee created the release in 1906 with his Declaration of Principles as an open, honourable form of communications, the release was at that time firmly entrenched as a publicity or advertising device – and the majority remained so.

So is this piece of puff a press release? Sadly, yes it is. It may look more like a marketing email – not surprising as it is from a “creative digital design and development shop”, and there is a distinct lack of news in its contents – again not surprising as the “shop” claims to “create digital assets”.

So perhaps it is time to give up on any virtuous claims for a press release – indeed, perhaps the only time when a press release is not a press release is when it genuinely has news or something of value to impart.

Die press release? Not a chance of it.


  1. Heather – I have to say, I laughed heartily whilst reading your post. I’ve recently heard from a couple of journalists who asked for a news release — it’s the basis for the story, not the story itself. The content in a good SMNR is, well, news, same as in an MSM release. Notwithstanding the SEO and “real estate” value of any stuff we send out, the fact remains that if we want people to cover our story there needs to BE a story.

    Even more ironic (and irritating) is the tendency to call PR “content marketing.” Don’t get me started. And tell those kids to get off my lawn.

    1. Judy Gombita says:

      P.S. to Sean. My journalism colleague, Ira Basen, has a radio documentary in the works about this subject. Although his original premise was “brand journalism” (including how many journalists are now working in-house or on contract to companies), but he continues to muse whether it should be “content marketing,” simply because that will get more interest and eardrums…..

  2. Judy Gombita says:

    What bothered me the most when I received it, Heather, was that I had to UNSUBSCRIBE from receiving future ones.

    Presumably we received these as a result of PR Conversations, but talk about your “spray and pray” untargeted, unresearched marketing spam (sending it to someone in Canada and someone in Great Britain).

    And the legislation is catching up with this practice. I went to a Brainrider-sponsored #torontob2b meetup session last year to “Learn the specifics of the new Canada’s Anti Spam Law (CASL). The first of its kind in Canada, CASL is the most strict anti spam law in the world. Sweeney Williams will provide an overview of the law, how they relate to compliance; as well as an update on expected implementation timelines.”

    See the video: http://www.brainrider.com/better-b2b-marketing/torontob2b-marketers-meetup-sweeney-williams/

  3. Thanks Judy and Sean – undoubtedly what we see with such ‘releases’ is a marketing mind-set. So zero targeting and use of a Mailchimp style html mailing which, as Judy notes, has the presumption that it is up to the receiver to unsubscribe. And to think that clients pay for this rubbish – wonder how the company evaluates the success? Probably in terms of ‘real estate’ that covers it…

    The real shame for PR within this Alexia company is that even a quick scan of its Facebook group reveals that it has several major issues that it is not managing. In particular its lobbying against GMO labelling seems to come up frequently.

  4. Anonymous says:

    We know each other through Al Clarke Heather. Your posts are always good thought provoking reading. Regards Leslie

  5. As journalists, we won’t be tweeting or socialising such things, so we’ll ignore all the fluff. Let us do the promotion once the story’s written.

    Maybe, thinking about it, social media news releases are good for journalism? If our differentiation comes in the added value we can offer over such releases, there’ll be a greater imperative to achieve this in order to avoid unfavourable comparisons with the SMNR. Any added value, or lack of it, will be exposed.

    Thought-provoking post, Heather – thanks.

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