A Brief History of the Press Release

February 3, 2016 Matt Allison: Founder, Chief Strategy Officer

The history of the press releaseThere’s some debate in PR circles these days about the value of the press release in today’s media environment. (We’ve written before that we think they can be of value in many situations.) But have you ever wondered how and why the practice got started and how the use of press releases has changed over the years? Here’s a brief history.

The invention of the press release is widely credited to Ivy Lee. In 1906 his agency was working with the Pennsylvania Railroad at the time of an accident that left more than 50 people dead. Realizing that the event was going to get lots of media attention and reflect badly on his client, Ivy decided to get proactive. He wrote a statement about the incident from the railroad’s prospective and distributed it to journalists. Thus, the press release was born and brands have been using the method to get their point of view into the hands of journalists ever sense.

If it Ain’t Broke

It's remarkable that the format of the content in a press release has changed very little in the 100+ years since they were first used. In general, they still follow the same recipe:

  • Headline
  • Sub-Headline
  • Dateline
  • Lead Paragraph
  • Body Paragraph/s
  • Quote/s
  • Boilerplate
  • Contact Information

It’s a formula that works well for brands and journalists.

Leveraging Technology

While the basic flow hasn’t changed much, a lot has changed about how press releases are distributed. Mr. Ivy shared his hand-to-hand, one reporter at a time. For many years, releases were distributed similarly to newspapers and reporters on paper. Eventually newswire services entered the scene to help brands get their releases to more outlets. Of course, today releases are distributed over electronic wire services, via email, on websites and through social media.

Modern press releases also often include multi-media elements, hyperlinks, images, and even video. In addition, PR pros leverage press releases to improve their search rankings for valuable key words. In fact, in the early 2000’s press releases were somewhat hijacked by SEO efforts, but Google responded and now they are largely used for their original purpose, to inform the press about a brand’s position on a newsworthy event.

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