One of the first things I learned in my first public relations class in college was how to write a press release. It seemed to be one of the core required skills for PR pros and the foundation upon which all other PR work was built. It was the late 90’s. People connected to the Internet with slow dialup modems, social media did not exist, and the 24-hour news cycle was barely a thing. Press releases were an essential tool for brands that wanted to get their message to the public. You may have noticed; things have changed. If I were teaching PR 101 today, here’s what I’d tell my students about the press release that turns 112 this year.
The History of the Press Release
Although I would tell my students that press releases are no longer the key to generating earned media, they are an important part of the history of our business, so understanding their history is both important and interesting.
The first press release is attributed to Ivy Lee. His agency was working with the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1906 when an accident caused more than 50 deaths. He knew that this tragedy was going to get a lot of media attention that would not look good for his client. Rather than wait to react to reports, he decided to get out ahead of the news. He crafted a statement about the accident from the railroad’s point of view and quickly distributed it to journalists.
It was an effective way of controlling the narrative, and it quickly caught on. Thus, press releases became a standard PR practice. So standard, in fact, that even today they almost all follow the same formula:
- Lead Paragraph
- Body Paragraph/s
- Contact Information
Ivy distributed his press release on paper and that’s how it was done until the telegraph became more commonplace and people were able to distribute releases over the “wire.” Of course, today so-called “wire services” use the internet to make press releases available to reporters.
And Then There Was Google
Once the internet became prevalent, and especially after Web 2.0 made everyone a publisher, press releases were less important for PR pros. Brands could easily tell their own story on their website and email reporters directly with news. But for a fleeting moment, press releases were extremely valuable to brands for another reason – SEO. Before search engine algorithms became as sophisticated as they are today, a press release with lots of links and good anchor text could achieve a high search ranking. The PR industry caught on to this and went to town creating millions of press releases that didn’t include any actual news solely for the purpose of SEO.
Of course, that didn’t last because these SEO-bait releases were not useful to reporters and the links were not helpful to searchers. On December 26, 2013, Google put the issue to rest. Matt Cutts, head of Google’s webspam team, wrote, “Links from your news releases do not have SEO value.”
Today, I’d argue that press releases, if not done right, may have adverse SEO consequences. Google has become so good at looking for quality links that will align with the searcher’s intent that spammy backlinks from low-quality sites will damage a brand’s authority and rank.
So, if a press release is not an effective way to catch the attention of journalists or improve search results, what would I tell my students to do instead?
I’d tell them that earned media is still a core objective of public relations and that they will need to find a modern approach to media outreach. That means connecting with journalists using highly relevant, personalized communication over every channel (email, phone, and social media). The days of throwing out an announcement and hoping for coverage are over.
These days, you must build relationships with all of the relevant influencers in your space including journalists, bloggers, industry experts, analysts, and customers. When your message resonates with your audience, and that is apparent to writers, you will get coverage. The trick is telling your story to the right people at the right time. Fortunately, today’s advanced media monitoring software makes this possible even given the complex media and social landscape.
Do It, Distribute It, Follow Up
I would advise my students to focus on a holistic approach to earning coverage. I’d make them learn to write press releases to craft the story, target the right influencers using a tool like Pinpoint Contacts, and use modern analytics to prove impact. This format forces discipline and forms a good starting point for other content. It’s also a great way to push all stakeholders to agree on what the core message is. Just getting agreement on the boiler plate can be a challenge, but once everyone in leadership has approved the press release, you can craft your more compelling content around it.
People ask us quite often if the press release is dead. But, even after 112 years, we’d say it's purpose has just evolved. It is no longer useful for its intended purpose and in fact, can cause adverse consequences for SEO. But there is value to being able to concisely state key messages before you take them to the next level with personalization and effective amplification.
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