The press release: is this Public Relations staple still relevant?

6 years, 9 months ago


There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that overworked beat reporters habitually delete press releases from overflowing inboxes after barely a second glance. This raises difficult questions about the role of this classic communications tool. By Simon Poulter

In the dark, distant and somewhat damp past of Public Relations there were things called typewriters, Gestetner duplication machines, word processors and fax machines, and they would toil long into the night to produce press releases that would then be sealed into envelopes or courier packages and dispatched forthwith to journalists, or faxed directly onto newsdesks with fire-breathing urgency.

Occasionally, those sending these documents would breach a cardinal rule by phoning their missive’s intended with the cheerful but slightly desperate "Did you get my press release?" Now, we all know the answer to that question, don´t we?
In ´dem olden days, envelopes bearing the latest "breakthrough" this and "revolutionary" that would often pile up in a newsdesk in-tray until a frenzied, deadline ceremony to select wheat from chaff. Months of planning, weeks of tedious marketing meetings and hours of tear-rendering arguments could disappear into the wastebasket on the pure whim of the stressed out, sweat-stained hack charged with choosing the news. 
Allow me, then, to pull my head out of the foggy mist of nostalgia and ask whether anything has truly changed today. The mailing houses may have found other clients, motorcycle couriers have long since been forcibly removed from client expense budgets, and the fax machine...well, if anyone could find the thing, we could probably all come up with some idea as to what it’s still doing there. 
The press release, on the other hand, and in one way, shape or form, is still the press release. It may have grown multimedia attachments, embedded images and infographics, but it still mostly serves the same purpose it always has.
The journalist, too, is also in one way, shape or form, still the journalist. Except that now he or she has either been forced into freelancing and therefore has to pitch for his or her supper, or is on staff but covering three times the number of briefs they were covering previously because reduced advertising revenues are eating into editorial headcount costs. 
Less time than ever
This means that Brer Journalist has even less time for your press release (months of planning, weeks of tedious marketing meetings, etc, etc, etc), as well as all the tolerance of an angry cobra should you be stupid enough to make the "Did you get my...?" call.
Perhaps the question we should all be asking is, does a press release still have any relevance at all? With beat reporters receiving between 200 and 300 press releases a day, with most, we know anecdotally, deleted as fast as they arrive, is all that stress really worth it?
The answer, my daily contacts say, is yes. But they also say it’s all about expectations: churning out press release-after-press release is never quite the drumbeat we think it might be. By all means announce that your CEO moved his coffee cup three inches to the left, but don’t, for one minute expect it to turn into editorial gold, even on the slowest of news days. 
There is, though, a chance that it might affect a beat reporter’s perception of your company´s or client´s reputation: maybe news of the CEO adjusting his or her cup will add to the colour story being built around your company. The beat reporters we engage with at Alcatel-Lucent are often looking for such colour, but only as an ingredient to their overall perception of the company. 
Sending two or three releases about individual commercial wins during the course of a single working day may satisfy the needs of the sales managers who commissioned them, but it would be folly not to consider the reporter on the end of your e-mail trying to determine whether you´ve just presented actual news or simply reminded them of what your business is meant to be doing day-to-day which, in our case, is selling stuff.
Forgetting the basics
I recognise that this post might be preaching to the choir, but talking to actual journalists, not to mention paying very careful attention to those who use Twitter to sound off about the PR profession with some exacerbation, it is amazing how often all of us in the business forget some of the basics in our eagerness to please internal wishes.
During a major international trade show earlier this year I took the opportunity to do a little market research. Because PR strategies around trade shows have long baffled me. I have never, for example, understood the rationale for bombarding journalists, especially those actually travelling to a show, with press releases on or just before the event´s opening day. We all know that in this supposedly always-on, mobile broadband world, not everything gets through. And, when your intended recipients are relying on hotel WiFi while dealing with overbearing editors´ instructions to churn out newsworthy copy on competitively tight turnaround times, your release really needs to be something worthy of celestial choirs to gain any meaningful recognition.
"You know what I do?" one Asia-based trade reporter told me at this particular event. "Every press release related to the show I´m attending that arrives while I´m there goes into a special folder in my inbox that I´ll only return to when I get back home. And then I´ll just delete those which have no relevance to the trend stories I´ve already decided will be what my readers are interested in. I´ve got a pretty good nose for news and know where the news is being made, and that´s how I report on shows."
It would be wrong to present this as an exclusive representation of how reporters deal with the trade show press release overload, but I´d hazard a guess that plenty of reporters will recognise it. 
At this point you may be wondering, whose side am I on? Doesn´t my own company have plenty of breakthroughs and innovations it wants to push at journalists when they´re least interested? Well, of course. This is the nature of our particular beast – we have something to say and have an inherent need to control when and how to say it. We all think our press release(s) are more important than the next company´s, and we´re prepared to think in isolation that they are.
Opposite sides of a thin coin
I have, however, always taken the view that the PR person sits on one side of a very thin coin to the journalist. All – even the few with underhand intent – are colleagues, not adversaries. They are, after all, just doing a job. We select the information we want them to know, they select the information they want their readers to have.
I started this post with a loose question about the relevancy of the press release. Yes, it still is. In some cases it is a necessity. In a few cases it is a legal obligation. But it should never be a catch-all broadcast. Targeted, it can be helpful; misaimed it can be equally harmful. 
Combined with an appropriate social media program, a marketing campaign to drive awareness and create pull demand, and even some good old-fashioned journalist schmoozing, that piece of paper that you have worked through the night on, stood with trepidation outside the boss´s office to get approval for, and dared interrupt your key media contacts´ day with, might still have a role to play. Even in these very different times.
Thought Leader Profile
Simon Poulter is the head of public relations for telecommunications technology vendor Alcatel-Lucent, based in Paris. In a 27-year career, Simon spent 11 years client-side at Philips Electronics in the Netherlands and California and four years running the consumer electronics account at Philips´ UK PR agency. Earlier in his career he worked as a music and entertainment journalist, and was a member of the launch PR team at Sky TV, joining during its pre-launch phase in 1988.

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The Author

Simon Poulter

Simon Poulter is the head of public relations for telecommunications technology vendor Alcatel-Lucent, based in Paris.

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