(UPDATE JAN 16: I published a followup article to this posting…)
Last summer I caused a bit of a stir when I published “Let’s Put Press Releases Out of Their Misery.” The basic point of that article was that the standard press release format is generally stodgy and lacks credibility even when well written. It’s an awkward fit for the true needs of journalists, and an extraordinarily poor fit for most other audiences.
So I encouraged PR professionals and the companies who hire them to think creatively about other approaches to publishing their own news, directly to their target audiences, in formats other than the standard press release.
A lot of people, especially longtime PR pros, disagreed vehemently. I understand their views, and I respect them. However, I stand by what I said at that time: I still think the press release format has outlived its limited usefulness, so organizations would do well to stop clinging to it.
However, since last summer I’ve gained some new insight into press releases that I’d like to share…
First of all, a couple of days ago I attended a meeting of the Rocky Mountain Internet Users Group. There I heard James Clark of Room 214, an internet marketing/PR firm based in my city of Boulder, CO, speak on how to connect with your target market or audience in an age of search-focused and largely aggregation-reliant media.
Clark used a term I think I’d heard before in passing, but it finally sunk in: the search release. In a nutshell, he clarified that in most cases the core audience for a “press release” (at least, the ones his firm creates) are not journalists and editors. Rather, they’re meant for current or potential customers, investors, partners, affiliates, opinion leaders or anyone else who represents some significant connection to (or can have a significant effect on) the company.
Clark explained that the target audiences generally discover their releases via search engines (such as Google) or content aggregation services (such as Yahoo News, Technorati, etc). Therefore, his firm ensures that the content, metadata, presentation, and structure of each release is optimized to make it as findable and attractive as possible, given the unique constraints of search and aggregation channels.
He even said at one point, “Well, we’re not really trying to reach journalists, so you can’t really call them ‘press releases.’ That’s why we call them ‘search releases.'”
That’s a very, very good point one I’d like to hear other PR professionals’ thoughts on.
…Then today I was browsing the weblog of Metzger Associates, another Boulder-based internet PR/marketing firm. On Dec. 29, 2005, they published “The Press Release Is Dead. Long Live The Press Release.” Here’s an excerpt from that thought-provoking posting:
“A freelance reporter recently stated that press releases should die…all reporters want or need is a fact sheet. If reporters and editors were still our only audience, we might agree. However, given that we are now able to tell our story directly not only to reporters, but to customers, shareholders and others interested in our companies, missing the opportunity doesn’t make much sense.”
Hmmmm, I suspect they might have been referring to my article, but I’m definitely not the only person expressing the anti-press-release perspective.
Anyway, here’s the comment I just submitted to their blog posting. As of this writing it hasn’t yet been approved for publication, but I expect it probably will be.
You make an interesting point. Namely, companies can now reach people directly — the same people they used to have to rely on the media to reach at all.
Given that, what you’re talking about publishing is no longer a “press release,” (since it’s not intended for journalists and the media), but rather simply your own news.
I agree that anything a company publishes, including its own news and announcements, should be optimized for search engines and other services. You offer several good tips on that front, so I’ll be mentioning your article to my readers.
…However, I do still think that the traditional press release format is generally stodgy and lacks credibility even when well written. Therefore, I think it’s even less appropriate for a general audience (or a business audience) than for an audience of journalists and editors.
Now, that’s my opinion, and I realize others disagree with me.
Instead, I would encourage PR professionals to think in terms of crafting stories that offer real value to the target audience, rather than “releases.” It’s a subtle conceptual distinction, but it can make a world of difference in connecting with your target audience.
Of course, it’s still important to be transparent: Clearly state who’s publishing the article, give relevant contact info and links (as specific as possible is best), and provide background facts or context as needed.
Fortunately, on the internet, there’s plenty of room to experiment with format.
Anyway, thanks for continuing the discussion on this interesting topic. I think you’ve made a valuable contribution here, even though we disagree on some points.
I’d also like to note that, as I wrote in my earlier article, if your goal is to reach and serve journalists, then a fact sheet is probably is a more effective and attractive vehicle than a traditional press release. Metzger Associates apparently agrees with that assessment.
…OK, you can still label it a “press release” if you need to keep your boss or client from freaking out, of course. Change is never easy. However, the content certainly doesn’t have to be structured that way.
In contrast, if you’re trying to connect with a different or wider audience directly via online media, then just try publishing an article rather than a release. Make sure it includes whatever info people would need to follow up (contact, links, etc.). Be transparent about who it’s coming from. And please, please make it engaging and relevant to the audience’s perspective NOT stodgy.
Remember, “official” rarely equals “credible.” If you want to connect with people constructively, you’ll need credibility more than an aura of officialdom. Getting those priorities straight is a great way to guide your content strategy and style decisions.
…So anyway, that’s where this discussion stands. I’m slightly hesitant to open this can of worms again, but this is “Contentious,” so what the heck.