The Press Release Is Dead and Thriving

As a way to kick off your publicity campaign, the press release is dead. It’s a casualty of the dot-com wars. You can lay it to rest alongside all those fax machines, teletypes, and iambic pentameters that didn’t make it into Y2K. The mighty press release, whose right to life is guaranteed by the First Amendment, has been replaced by the keyword, the short email pitch, the hiccup followed by a URL. Or has it?

B.L. Ochman, a savvy PR/marketing person, says, “I haven’t sent out a traditional press release in the last 10 years.” She sends out pitch letters instead.

The press release may be dead, but don’t go driving a stake through its heart just yet. The press release has an honored history as a journalistic instrument, and in some quarters it has never been so much in demand.

The rap on releases is pretty straightforward. They often read like copy written by a summer intern with an anxious CEO looking over his or her shoulder. The basic model has a headline, dateline, and lead followed by a yada yada quote and a couple of paragraphs of even less significant news ending in corporate boilerplate. However, in this distinctively American literary form can be read the hopes and fears of an organization.

The Internet has changed the very reason we prepare and distribute press releases. And it doesn’t have much to do with news. Cordell Koland, executive vice president of SIPR, says “Press release pickups for start-ups are slim or none. Publicity in those cases moves forward via phone, emails, and personal solicitations, not press releases.

But Koland thinks a new purpose is emerging. “In these online days, the press release functions in some ways as a history of your company. People whether press, investors, partners, or competitors can go online and search out what you’ve done. It’s pretty good verbal history.”

For well over a century, PR people relied on hand delivery and the mails to distribute news to the media. Transmission of releases over news wires began to change that. In the past five years, email changed it all over again.

Now, the attention media gives a random press release has to be measured in nanoseconds. Today, all an editor or reporter has to do is scan a headline or an email subject line on his computer before hitting DEL. News releases have moved from the trash basket to the desktop Recycle Bin. How could it be otherwise? The sheer volume of press releases is staggering. PRNewswire alone distributes 1,200 daily.

Its chief competitor, Business Wire, distributes about the same number of releases, according to New York Regional Manager and Vice President Phyllis Dantuono, and the number is swelling. “The growth in the past four years has been exponential, mostly from dot-coms and the growth of online outlets. Plus business people are more interested in archiving news. The landscape has changed.”

Last month, I faced a feature article publication deadline around the time I was scheduled to pitch a client’s breaking product release story. It was a perfect perspective to view the death throes of the press release as bearer of news.

Researching the article meant facing a carpet bombing of off-target press releases and emails courtesy of a ProfNet listing. (ClickZ, June 13). Once I sorted out my research, I called the (very) few PR people whose emails did make the cut and requested instant responses because I was on deadline.

So there I was, on the one hand waving off PR people trying to slip client plugs into a story, and on the other hand storming the voice mails of America’s elite media pitching my own client’s story to editors who were, naturally, on deadline. Not a press release in sight.

Except for issues of compliance, the primary function of the press release is no longer about news. The lowly press release is a chapter in the story an organization publishes about itself. It is the archival record behind the story pitch.

“The news release has become something more powerful than in the past,” said Renu Aldrich, PR chief for PRNewswire. “Now it goes not just to the media but to the 1 million institutional investors who get all the wire releases, and on to the web where millions of consumers, investors, and customers can read it.” And once the release hits the web, its half life is no longer measured in nanoseconds but in eons.

When you need to reach reporters, lots of them, sending your press release over the news wires is just a basic part of the drill. The cost is so low relative to the reach that it is truly a no-brainer. But there’s a more certain road to publicity than the broadside release.

Hone in on those media and those writers who work your turf. Give them something they need, something to make their jobs easier. In the main, writers are lazy SOBs. If we weren’t, we would have taken engineering or business courses and be holding down grown-up jobs. Instead, we loafed through college reading Chaucer and cheap French novels and now earn a living as creative curmudgeons, on deadline, not taking calls. So, leave a message, but please, leave your release behind.

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