When Being Ignored Is Bliss

I get a lot of press releases here often, followed by phone calls from PR people hopeful I’ll use their “news.”

The truth is, however, that press releases almost never contain news.

Oh, that doesn’t mean the effort is wasted. I often use press releases for background when I’m doing a story. This is especially true after a deal or business fails. I want to make sure I quote correctly whatever inane hyperbolic statements were made about the company that failed.

I often check old news releases hoping to find a contact I can call for a quote. These days I’m usually disappointed. More and more companies are taking contact information off the press releases when they are posted online, fearing that customers might actually try to contact them. Instead I see these “contact forms” that all seem to go to customer no-service departments and never draw a reply.

Press releases deliver a company’s precise message in a way that puts the company in the best possible light. That’s not news. If you want your message to get out your way, buy an ad.

Sometimes a number of press releases can point to a trend that will lead to an editor to call me with a story idea. He or she will send along these press releases and ask me to seek interviews with the companies involved. But that doesn’t mean the press releases are news. They become part of the raw material from which a feature will emerge.

To adapt the old saw: Press releases are “dog bites man.” That’s not news. “Man bites dog” — now that’s news.

Oh, it is true that some press conferences draw a crowd, and PR people are left to wonder why. Contrary to their belief, it has nothing to do with the venue or free food. It has to do with the unexpected nature of the story being presented. It’s what the company did, not what the PR staff did, that counts.

What brings us running to that press conference? Some things that big companies do are naturally newsworthy. We have to be there when IBM or Microsoft or Intel announces a major new product. It’s not that the news is unexpected. It’s just that everyone else is there.

Sometimes we’ll show up for a small company’s event if what the company offers is really new or truly unexpected. But this doesn’t happen often, and we decide what is new or unexpected. There’s really no way for the company making the announcement to predict that.

When real news happens, of course, there’s never a press release. When a company goes under or governments start investigating the books or the product, I never get a press release. I never get a phone call from some PR person anxious to share the details of the latest disaster with me. They only call when it’s “good news,” which usually means there’s no news.

So if I don’t get to your press release or product launch, it’s not because I don’t care or because you did something wrong. We only gawk at traffic accidents. To the press, your good news may just be mundane: nothing to get excited about, just another day in paradise. And that’s good news indeed.

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