The end of press releases Article icon

The More than 100 years after the first press release was sent, some communicators see them as an archaic way to connect with stakeholders but support remains strong

Ivy Ledbetter Lee is reputed to have issued the first press release in 1906 on behalf of the Pennsylvania Railroad, after a derailed train plunged into a creek in Atlantic City, resulting in 53 passenger deaths; The New York Times printed it verbatim.

However, the press release may have had its day. 'It's not conversational or engaging and the only way to capture attention is with a racy headline, which journalists see past,' Jason Kintzler, a US journalist-turned-social media entrepreneur recently told Forbes Magazine.

'Traditional press releases are the easy button. In most cases, companies are still writing for their chief executives, not their audience. If they really consider it, they should write for them, not at them. Marketing-speak is so 1950.'

Plenty of journalists agree. Take Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson, the Financial Times' media editor who regularly posts a 'press release of the day' on his Facebook page.

One began: 'There are 4.7 million reptile-owning households in the US, yet most get the 'willies' at the thought of being close to one.'

Another, sent at 7.19am, stated: 'Marketing emails sent before business hours go unread.' A third, sent around Valentine's Day, asks: 'So how do we get customers to love us?' before answering its own question: 'Not an easy question but if you want a good idea, join a dating site because finding a date is like finding a customer.'

'It's tempting to think that the press release is dead but my in box suggests otherwise,' Edgecliffe-Johnson surmises.

'Too many are still little more than poorly-targeted, poorly-written spam and too few contain the kind of information the press and wider media really need. That does not mean the press release is dead, just sorely abused.'

Corporate communicators have a different twist. 'For all the railing against the press release in some quarters, its death, like Mark Twain's a century ago, has been greatly exaggerated,' says Michael Osborne, PR manager at law firm Clifford Chance.

'For as long as journalists are asking for press releases - and plenty still do - they will be with us.

'The format has survived the fall of the typewriter and the rise of email, so the emergence of new ways to communicate no more predicts its demise than the arrival of the television or Twitter doomed the novel or poetry.'

The debate about the future of the press release has certainly started up again, however.

Ten years ago, recalls Daryl Wilcox, chairman of media information firm DWPub, this discussion stemmed from the advent of blogs, only for the number of press releases to spiral ever higher, due to tactics of search engine optimisation (SEO) firms.

'Search optimisation agencies realised that by submitting press releases they could get inbound links to their client websites very easily and boost the rankings of websites,' says Wilcox.

'Now Google has become much stricter about quality content so the value of those inbound links is not as strong. We had a bubble where the SEO industry fell in love with the press release. That's beginning to ebb away and we're going back to a world where people are using the press release for the right reason which is ultimately to communicate news.'

That's certainly true at the financial end of the market, where London Stock Exchange rules mandate that anything potentially material to the share price of a publicly-listed company has to be published in a press release on an accredited newswire, such as the Regulatory News Service.

'Press releases are probably still 50 per cent of our work,' says James Henderson, chief executive of public relations agency Bell Pottinger Private.

'All listed companies have to do press releases and release those to the press as well as the stock market. That hasn't changed at all. The requirements are no less than they've always been.

'For unlisted companies, it can be more informal and you might send an email but if you are trying to get widespread coverage you'll still put out a press release.'

That may be true but what will the press release look like in ten years' time? Most communicators expect a continuing evolution.

'Rather than just an A4 page of words and quotes, each time we approach a press release now it's with the view to what else we can add,' states Kat Farminer, senior account manager at technology public relations agency EML Wildfire.

'Are the image and video links easily downloadable? Are there clear links to a client's social media feeds? Is there a schedule for further interviews clearly displayed?'

Farminer tells of a recent release to launch, a social network for students. EML issued a press release but added links to a trial where journalists could access the site, despite not having a university-accredited email address.

The result, says Farminer, was more than 75 stories in national media, both print and online. 'That would not have been possible if we had not included some added value for media,' she says.

Pure print press releases are increasingly being viewed as outdated. Henderson sees most non-financial press releases containing video and web links and some in the industry are going further., a Brussels-based start-up, prefers 'social media pressrooms', which offer interactive web pages containing news, pictures and video, replacing press releases.

'Instead of having a very boring dry PDF file sent off to a journalist, we offer a rich multimedia pressroom that contains the current release but also previous releases and allows journalists to interact,' says co-founder Gijs Nelissen.

'We give a lot of tools to pitch to influential people and tell you who's opening the press releases and coming back to them again.

'PR is all about relationships. PRs need to stop sending out mass emails to journalists pitching stories. They need to invest time in building relationships with them and our tool supports that.

'We don't sell lists or distribute press releases because we're heavily against that. We want to help PR people to be smarter.'

Kintzler's Pitch Engine service in the US, meanwhile, allows clients including Budweiser Beer to bypass traditional media outlays and reach customers and influencers directly through short web pitches that contain video links and are optimised for online services such as Twitter.

That begs the question of what is a PR pitch, as opposed to a press release, blog or website? Some practitioners feel this is just semantics.

'It's a bit of an existential question,' says Mike Davies, head of financial and corporate for media intelligence firm Gorkana.

'What's a press release? Is it the same as a regulatory news statement? They're certainly written like press releases and often seem to be aimed more at journalists than investors. And I'm not noticing any fewer of them.

'It's not that press releases are less important. There are just a lot more ways of getting information out. The press release no longer has a monopoly on distribution.'

Chen-Lee Tsui-Shek, manager of European marketing at Business Wire, recently helped to organise a panel discussion at which the Press Association's editor of video Jim Grice confirmed that press releases sent in without an accompanying visual had less chance of being used.

'While in the olden days, the press release was the only way to get your news out, nowadays there are more strings on your communications bow,' she says.

'The modern press release provides the story with additional content in one complete package. It remains a trusted communications tool that's still a necessary part of a communications strategy.

'Non-traditional communication platforms such as social media tools assist traditional media relations by creating a stronger brand message and help communicate those crucial key points through a wider scope.'

Some communicators claim they have never set much store by the traditional press release.

Scott White, the former corporate communications director of Standard Life who is now a freelance financial services PR adviser, believes most journalists still prefer a personal approach.

'I prefer to ring or email a journalist and say I've got a great story for you,' he says. 'Then, if the journalist wants something in writing, I send him or her something in an email.

'If you target the right journalist and your story is any good you're going to get a response, whereas most press releases end up in the bin.

'Companies spend excruciating amounts of time on press releases, often to satisfy egos within the organisation.

'I've seen this time and time again; worthless prose thrown together and put on a press release. And it's getting worse because we now live in a cut and paste culture.'

There's an element of horses-for-courses to all of this, adds Osborne at Clifford Chance. 'Ultimately it's all about listening to the people you work with. If your target audience hates people sending them emailed press releases, why would you do that to them?

'Good PRs have never relied solely on press releases. It's just one way of sharing information.'

Wilcox agrees. 'On the one hand, the traditional press release does rather seem a little bit outdated,' he says. 'But then it's 100-odd years old.

'However, I can't imagine it will ever die. It will evolve. The press release is going to be just one channel and one that perhaps needs to be used slightly differently.

'It's no longer just about chucking a load of text on a page and flinging it away. It's about thinking about what other content you could include and about how else you can communicate to journalists other stakeholders and influencers in social media.

'This is not the death knell for the press release. Whenever you've got a major piece of news, especially something regulatory, financial, to do with a significant new product or an emergency involving the police, fire and ambulance services, there's nothing better than a press release to get the main facts out in a nice, clean and effective way. For those things I think it will always be here.'