Rethinking Releases: Who\’s Your Audience?

(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.

I wrote:

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.


6 thoughts on Rethinking Releases: Who\’s Your Audience?

  1. Working with nonprofits, I’ve found that smaller (community) newspapers will often run a press release word for word, if it’s well-written. The trick is to write the release in such as way that it’s “quotable” or print-ready. In other words, I write a news story, put the tag “press release” on it and send it to my distribution list. More times than not I will see it run in a small neighborhood paper a week or two later.

    Truthfully, I’ve found that major outlets also respond better to this kind of release. Mostly, I guess, because it’s written with the news in mind, and not focusing on organizational language.

  2. Amy–I really appreciate how your posts can make my neurons move about issues that are important and relevant to me, especially in the areas of the public conversation and the topic of press releases.

    My question is how this conversation can be tweaked to include the political arena, like the state legislature where I just retired from as a staffer. Prior to that I was a newspaper reporter.

    My state, Michigan, is facing some dramatic economic and social challenges and the state legislature and the governor’s office is right in the middle. Our state’s survival depends on that public conversation and all the little conversations that go into it.

    Now, there’s a whole communication bureaucracy that’s involved with each political caucus. Their mission is to grind out press releases. As a staffer, I could see their limited utility and as a reporter I never used them for more than a tip sheet to a story.

    Local newspapers and other media outlets give no more than a passing glance at legislative coverage. News consumers might get regurigated stuff staged and plastic news conferences, but not much more.

    And legislators send out packaged newsletters and that kind of stuff. Our lawmakers have templated websites that provide little in the way of conversation.

    As a media visionary and futurist, how do you see this all plugging into political communication? I’d love to hear your thoughts and those of your readers.


  3. These days, what with word-processing automation, the “fact sheet” that should be sent to seasoned journalists at major outlets can easily be the “outline” of a conversational release that could easily be printed word-for-word. Nobody’s mentioned the “so what?” you discussed in your article about killing the press release as we know it. Regardless of your readership, it takes a clever, thoughtful p/r person to make their press release *newsworthy.* Given the fact that the general public, in addition to journalists, are overwhelmed with “news releases” these days, the most successful will be the ones that are easy and enjoyable to read, while giving the reader information that they’ll be as interested in (or nearly so) as the writer is.

  4. I agree.

    Too many people still think PR means Press Release. Clients still want to hear that you’ll issue x releases per month. I advise that manufacturing news and squirting ink is not only a waste of their time, it’s a waste of the media’s time, too. It’s a hard battle to get clients to see it that way, but it’s amazing how minds change after a failed release result and a successful pitch/one-to-one result.

    Some of this is dilution of what a real press release used to be (timely, factual, news-based) vs. what it is today (self-serving hype that no-one but employees are interested in), while some of it is just that people work differently today (every company should have a web site with information on principals, products, principles, investor information, customer information, etc.)

    Go to a wire service’s web page. Check out the amount of manufactured or small news distributed to the media. If press releases were used solely to push real news to the media, as they used to be in the past, perhaps they’d still have a reason to exist.

  5. Pingback: Bad Language / 62 ways to improve your press releases

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