Nonprofits, Press Releases, and the Public Conversation

Last night I had an interesting e-mail exchange with CONTENTIOUS reader Tom Poe, who run the nonprofit organization Open Studios. He asked:

“…It’s my understanding that press release format is laid out with the purpose to provide all elements of a news article for the journalist, who may, or may not use those elements to publish an article.

If that is true, then before the press release dies, don’t we need to provide a better model, a more streamlined model, for journalists to use? Thanks – from a nonprofit searching to replace nonexistent grant funding with marketing skills for the Digital Age.”

With permission from Tom, here’s our exchange which followed…

I replied:

Actually, there are lots of alternate tools to use — there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Several of them were suggested by Kevin Dugan, BL Ochman, and Steve Rubel; and I’ve already suggested others.

Basically, the press release is no silver bullet. It never was. It’s not even a rubber bullet.

It seems to me that PR folks usually resort to press releases out of either laziness, tradition, or fear. It’s an attempt to deliver – in a fully sanctioned, one-size-fits-all package – information that only truly succeeds when customized. They appear to be doing what they’ve always done because they’ve always done it – a motive that has little to do with effective communication.

In fact, effective communication is never one-size-fits-all. The press release approach makes the classic error of putting form over function, and over substance. That’s one reason, of several, why press releases are inherently fake and generally ineffective. It’s a brain-dead approach to a complex challenge.

Although some journalists are lazy (at least on occasion), most aren’t. Despite the temptation to simply crib from press releases, no journalist can rely on that method for long and survive in that profession. Doing so only undermines their credibility and professional reputation.

Furthermore, most journalists I know actively despise attempts to feed them prepackaged stories. They reserve special loathing for the fake quotes that press releases often contain. From a reporter’s perspective, that approach can actually seem insulting.

Thus, the press release format tends to generate or increase resistance from the mainstream media. Just talk to reporters frankly about this matter and you’ll see. From the perspective of PR, how much sense does that make? Isn’t there a better way to deliver that information and establish communication?

I think that, for many types of news and communication, organizations (especially nonprofits) would probably succeed more by focusing efforts on participating directly in the public conversation and directly engaging the public (or a target audience). These days, this generally makes more sense than beseeching the media to make their points for them. Once some portion of public gets interested, then the media will be more likely to take a look, anyway.

Tom responded:

What you say seems to make sense on several levels. Again, speaking as a nonprofit organization, if I understand what you’re saying:

There’s a conversation going on out there, and, for our nonprofit organization, we just might have more success in getting our message out by using methods and means that don’t rely on press releases as a communications device.

Ironically, as it turns out, Open Studios is a nonprofit organization which assists communities to build and operate community-based recording studios. The idea is to put the tools of technology in the hands of the homeless, the low-income population, students, nonprofits, small businesses that cannot afford the luxury of the “press release” doctrine.

GOTCHA! And to all those Contentious readers, we humbly and politely invite you to visit our site, and take away any and all ideas that might help make your blogging/podcasting/videocasting a much more enjoyable experience. Who knows, you may find community-based recording studios just the right tool for your work, as well as for your personal health and well-being by contributing to those who need your support.

Thanks much, Amy, and I’ll enjoy receiving your feeds for a long time to come.

– Tom Poe