I have a confession to make. When I was a reporter at Newsweek, I received literally thousands of press releases via email -- and I deleted almost every single one of them without even opening them.
Basically, I used my Newsweek email account as a filter. My “real” email was my personal Gmail account. The only people who wrote to my Newsweek account were PR people who didn't know my Gmail address and probably got my Newsweek address from some list.
Every morning, I’d find 50 or so messages in that Newsweek account, almost all of them press releases, virtually all of them things I did not care about. I’d glance through the subject lines and then zap them all (I’m pretty sure every other reporter does essentially the same thing).
So ... if nobody’s reading these releases, why on earth are companies still spending all this money to create and distribute them?
A spokesperson for PR Newswire, a distribution service, indicates the volume of press releases it sends out has grown over the past four years. The company has even created a list of “The Top 10 Reasons to Send a Press Release,” and they argue that press releases still make loads of sense.
From my perspective, as a journalist who was on the receiving end, I really wonder about the value of press releases and whether companies are too liberal in sending them out without truly contemplating the merit of doing so.
Not Dead Yet, But Getting There
While some PR professionals will assert press releases are still a viable medium -- which is true, in some ways -- a number of PR people feel they should be universally out of use. In fact, some industry members think they should’ve been dead for some time now.
“The simple press release should have died years ago. In my mind they’re dead already,” notes Frank DeMaria, a veteran PR executive. DeMaria, who used to run PR for the NASDAQ stock exchange, Newsweek, and Reuters, is currently the CEO of Social360 Monitoring, a company that monitors social networks for big brands.
In Silicon Valley, a lot of tech companies have pretty much stopped bothering with press releases. Some, like Twitter, have never issued a single one. Tumblr sends out “the occasional press release,” but relies more on its own Staff blog to announce news, says Katherine Barna, the social networking site’s head of communications.
“I can count on my hands the number of press releases we’ve sent out in the past 12 months, and that’s with 22 clients,” states Brooke Hammerling, founder of BrewPR, a New York agency that works with numerous tech startups. "Startups, whenever possible, should not put out a press release. We have worked really hard with a majority of our clients to scrap the press release whenever possible.” (BrewPR’s clients include charity: water, whose CEO, Scott Harrison, gave the final keynote at HubSpot’s INBOUND conference in August.)
Even some old-guard, traditional companies are calling for change. Former Forbes reporter Tomas Kellner says his goal as managing editor of the GE Reports blog is to “retire the press release” by conveying the same information but in a more compelling form on the blog.
But Some Businesses Still Find Press Releases Useful
Though many marketing and PR pros seem to be moving to new methods to disperse their own companies’ or clients’ news, not everybody in the industry has such a strong aversion to press releases.
Michael Celiceo, a director at Sparkpr, an agency in San Francisco, says press releases should be seen as “one component of a transmedia storytelling effort.” And while he notes the form is “best used sparingly and when appropriate,” he insists that, “News releases are not dead, nor will they go ‘south’ anytime soon.”
Betsy Kosheff, a veteran tech PR person and independent PR consultant in Boston, also shares that opinion. When I asked her if press releases were obsolete, she just scoffed at me.
“Every couple of years the press release is declared dead, and today we’re thrilled to announce it’s not dead again or even sick but more alive than ever,” Kosheff asserts. She also points out that she now calls them “news releases” instead of “press releases,” because “there’s no press now, so can we stop calling them ‘press releases'?”
Fair enough. But the question arises again: why use them? What benefits are there to still put out releases in this day and age?
“They’re still a good way to get a company thinking about what their story is,” Kosheff proclaims. “They’re also a route into search engines and content aggregators, especially if you are a startup or private company. They’re the best way for two companies to show they are working together, and a great way to serve something up when an editor says, ‘That sounds interesting, is there a news release on that?’”
The bottom line, it seems to me, is that the traditional press release may still play a role in an overall marketing strategy, but that role is getting smaller and smaller, and other platforms are becoming far more important. While press releases may live on for a few more years, it’s safe to say that if you’re still relying on them as your primary tool for relaying products or company news, you’re at risk of falling behind.
If You’re Looking for a Change, Here’s What to Do Instead
And so the conundrum presents itself: if you shouldn’t be sending out press releases or news releases (or whatever you prefer to call them), what should you be sending out? Here are three expert suggestions from the aforementioned PR pros:
1) Provide company info through a blog.
If you’re an inbound marketer, you already understand the value of using content to draw people toward your brand. But your blog can do much more than just serve up SEO keywords and generate leads. It can also be a place where you announce news, in a format that feels more friendly (and believable) than a cold, sterile, impersonal press release.
“When it comes to news we urge our clients to write a blog post, in the first person -- in their voice,” says Hammerling at BrewPR. “And if we want to brief the media ahead of time, instead of forwarding them a press release we send them the blog post.”
2) Utilize social networks to relay news.
You’ve spent all that time building a presence on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and other social realms. Now be sure you communicate with the audience(s) you’ve built.
“If I want to show the world a new product, I’ll write about it in a launch article, post that article to Tumblr, and then post items on Facebook and Twitter,” notes DeMaria at Social360. “If I’ve done the right job of building a community I can do that.”
3) Consider developing sponsored posts.
Pretty much every major media company now accepts sponsored content. So, instead of spending money to craft a press release and mail-bomb it to every reporter in the world, why not just write the article yourself (or hire a freelance journalist to write it) and then pay to have the article posted in whatever publications you think make the most sense?
In effect, you’re paying for distribution. Instead of the “spray-and-pray” approach of sending out a release to the whole world and seeing who bites, you get to choose where the story appears and you get to control what it says. Better yet, that story is more likely to get picked up by other publications than if you’d just issued a press release.
Bottom line, press releases should act the same way your other marketing acts. Who wants to read this, and in what format do they want to read it? Boring, untargeted content doesn't belong anywhere in your marketing -- in the format of a press releases, email, blog post, social media post, etc. If you do decide to use press releases, think of the audience first.