The humble press release is one of our most reliable tools in public relations. It is the key vehicle by which practitioners deliver news, at scale, to the media.
It was invented out of unfortunate necessity by public relations pioneer (and later, controversial character) Ivy Ledbetter Lee. Credited with opening the nation’s first public relations firm, Lee represented the Pennsylvania Railroad. In October 1906, the railroad company experienced an accident that cost the lives of more than 50 people.
Lee’s innovative approach to PR around the accident included the issuance of the first-ever press release (also referred to as a news announcement or news release). It provided a clear and accurate statement about the accident and its aftermath, and he also arranged for a train trip to the accident site. In an industry-first, his statement on behalf of the railroad was printed word-for-word by the New York Times.
Lee’s handling of the incident was the forerunner of today’s advanced crisis communications efforts, and it reminds us of the value of a well-crafted news release and a thoughtful, credible campaign supporting that news announcement.
Press releases are a foundational element of what PR pros do, and their ability to communicate to multiple different parties is critical. We’re a long way from the printed press releases that we once handed to reporters as a standard practice. We also sent a lot of them through the mail. Over the years, releases have been delivered using various forms of technology, including through telegram, telex, and cable, as well as more recent developments like fax and email.
However, today’s press wire services—which were founded as far back as the 1950s—lead the way in terms of press release distribution. While some might consider them less relevant in the era of the internet and social media, wire services have their place in the ecosystem because they bring some unique capabilities to the task of gaining media attention.
BROADER AND DEEPER REACH
News wire services have the benefit of getting information directly—and instantly—to newsrooms and targeted reporters. While amplification for a release can be accomplished through posting to company websites and social platforms, many reporters rely on news release content delivered by trusted sources like Cision to drive at least some portion of their editorial coverage.
What’s more, the value of using a newswire service includes casting a wider net. Companies that distribute their news over the wire will be exposed to more publications and reporters at once than they could ever possibly manage themselves. And the search engine optimization (SEO) benefits of putting your release on the wire—where it will get near-instantaneous pick-up on a wide variety of news sites—will often lead to increased content downloads and better organic search visibility through backlinks.
While some reporters might eschew press releases from the wire, there are a lot of journalists who use the daily flow of press releases to keep tabs on the markets they cover, as well as to sort, organize, and prioritize the firms they want to report on. The automatic delivery of targeted news saves these reporters a lot of research time, and regular delivery of press releases from your company helps build awareness and potential interest over time, whether you’re promoting a company or a market or advocating for an idea.
TAILORED PITCHES ARE STILL KEY
Of course, not all media and PR people are sold on the efficacy or value of press releases delivered via the newswires. Seasoned PR pros know that in combination with a news release, breaking through to secure media coverage requires a tailored pitch. PR professionals must demonstrate their understanding of the media outlet they’re targeting and offer news that resonates with that outlet’s audience. News releases can provide facts and context, but it helps to have a professional to frame the story.
In a somewhat similar fashion, TV newsrooms generally don’t look at press releases coming via the wires. They’re looking for relevant information with news value, which they can then “daybook” for their video crews. Providing news in advance (often under embargo) is a solid approach, and news releases are definitely useful as background for these efforts, which include forward story planning—but offering a release is only the beginning. This is because any coverage generated from a widely distributed press release isn’t really differentiated, which is a key concern for media outlets in today’s environment of accelerated news cycles and competition for ratings.
PR professionals should aim to deliver press releases that are as thoughtful, relevant, and eloquent as the coverage they wish to see. Careful writing and editing are integral to the creation of compelling stories, and even if they don’t generate coverage, press releases drive awareness with target journalists and media outlets, as well as customers, prospects, influencers, and other key audiences. For a communications tool that was invented over a hundred years ago, that’s a pretty good thing.
Curtis Sparrer is a principal of Bospar PR. Business Insider has twice listed him as one of the Top Fifty in Tech PR.