Press Releases: Dead or Alive?

Press Releases: Dead or Alive?



By Steven Le Vine, Sept. 23, 2010

The first thing most people associate with Public Relations is often a press release. And that is no surprise. After all, press releases have been the most widely used tactic that PR professionals have employed in order to get their client’s message across in a timely and organized fashion.

But has the effectiveness of the press release come to an end?

In 2006 the press release celebrated its 100-year anniversary. The first press release? A news release regarding a derailed train in Atlantic City that killed 53 people, disseminated by Ivy Ledbetter Lee. In 1905, Lee became the co-founder of America’s third public relations firm, Parker and Lee, and is arguably considered to be the founder of current-day PR (sans social media-laden 2010).

Also known as a news release, a press release is generally a one- to two-page document exhibiting the “Five Ws” (who, what, where, when, why -- and how) of a news briefing. It’s a way of packaging a story to send to members of the media, as well as other parties, by leading them to the most important facts and providing them with ideas for a creative twist or hook to their story.

Through my experience working as a partner in a full-service PR firm for the past four years, I have come to think of a press release like a mannequin in a clothing shop. A store, whether in a mall, boutique or even on New York’s Fifth Avenue, usually sets up an array of mannequins to display each new style. These mannequins are arranged in order to show shoppers what it would look like to wear a particular outfit – usually the retailer’s newest lines. Mannequins act as a way of suggesting to customers how to piece together a great ensemble. This is similar to a press release, which intends to show a reporter just how a news story should be written.

Some customers stick to these ensembles, purchasing every piece that is worn by a mannequin, if this look suits their needs. However, if the store didn’t do a good job at putting together this outfit, or if one or two certain pieces on the mannequin are stronger than the rest, customers may pick only those better looking pieces and leave the rest. Consequently, the rest of the shoppers won’t purchase any. The latter situation is similar to many journalists who scrap most press releases they receive, if they don’t fit with what they are looking to write about, or are simply not put together very well.

In recent years, many have questioned the importance of press releases in today’s rapid-fire society of social media. Are they still an integral part of the news cycle, or are their best years behind them?

Pop Music Writer Joey Guerra (@JoeyGuerra), of the Houston Chronicle, believes they are still necessary as they are the quickest way of sending basic information on a subject.

“I don’t think they’re over,” he says. “But I do think PR people might need to reconsider what they include and the way they present it.

Guerra says he mainly uses press releases when they are tied to certain events – a CD-release party, a concert, a festival – “something that has details [that] you need for a story or a listing.”

He also believes that press releases that are attached to just a general idea aren’t very helpful, nor are they helpful after the fact, either.

“The most frustrating thing is that often people don’t include enough basic information.”

Candice Sabatini (@SabatiniOnStyle), the Editorial Director for Beauty News NYC, agrees. “I depend on press releases to give me information on product launches, popular travel destinations, lifestyle trends, fashion trends, and what happened on the runway during Fashion Week during the shows I wasn’t able to attend. I depend on press releases for product and key figure information.”

However, she firmly believes if they do not convey the information she is looking for, are too lengthy, and most importantly, do not follow the “inverted pyramid” rule, they are a “waste of time.”

“Tell me the point first,” she explains, “and then I can decide if I want to read further.” According to Sabatini, there are a few characteristics that make for a good press release. They can’t be too wordy and must give her only the information she needs, without trying to do her job for her. They must also reference the specific subject and or product in the “Subject” line of the email. Candice doesn’t enjoy a publicist’s attempt at a nebulously written ploy to intrigue her into opening an e-mail. The press release must also answer all questions an editor might ask.

Sabatini also explains, “I sometimes get press release pitches that suggest article or story topics. Even if I liked an idea, I wouldn’t use it knowing that the same story idea has gone out to a hundred other editors.”

A true PR professional will properly counsel clients on the correct use of press releases, so as to not waste any of their account time on tasks or projects that will not work to their utmost advantage. By utilizing a pragmatic approach, I have personally learned over time when press releases are worthwhile and when they are not. Press releases are great for things like company, brand or product launches, new releases of music albums or films, or to announce an event, but simply do not carry the weight they once did for general story ideas or angles. They are also essential in providing editors or producers with background information to accompany a pitch. But for story ideas, pitch letters offer up a much more personalized approach for reporters, and most of the time act as a call-to-action to drum up more substantial press exposure.

Consequently, with the emergence of social media marketing, press releases are quickly being replaced by the media release or SEO press release, which is a revamped, modernized version of the traditional press release. While media releases may not usually help in pitching a story and are not generally suitable for personalized press outreach, they are wonderful tools for gaining visibility directly in front of your target audience and for building Search Engine Optimization (SEO) rankings, because of their ability to include meta keywords or tags, which get picked up by crawlers from sites like Google, Bing and Yahoo!, and other news aggregators.

In addition, media releases allow publicists and marketing specialists to embed images, videos, audio and slideshows, as well as links to a company’s website, blog, Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn account, and RSS feeds. They can also include social bookmarking links to sites like Digg and del.icio.us. Their potential is endless.

However, with new technology always comes a rift between the excitement of early adopters and the fear and rejection of traditionalists. This particular new technology has already begun to cause a division between the older generation of traditional publicists and tech-savvy Integrated Marketing specialists, causing people such as award-winning marketing strategist David Meerman Scott to offer up his “New Rules of Marketing & PR.”

Both sides bring up valid points. Traditional press releases have their time and place, just as much as media releases do. So, why limit ourselves to one over the other, when they both serve a different purpose?


About the Author:

Steven Le Vine is a partner and co-founder of grapevine pr (www.theprgrapevine.com), a full-service luxury lifestyle and entertainment PR firm, based in Los Angeles.