Originally posted on Forbes.com.
Just about everything in the communications world has changed in the past few decades. years. hours. And yet one relic of the old tactics has hung on well beyond its sell-by date: the press release. This old-fashioned sales tool made a lot of sense in a slower era, when we all weren’t so constantly distracted and accustomed to grazing on bits and bytes of information throughout the day.
But who has time for a page-long release in today’s world? Now you have to sell brands and ideas in 140 characters, including the pithy #tellstories hashtag.
Industry watchers have been discussing the demise of the press release for a while now. More than two years ago, PR consultant and writer Michelle Garrett made a case on Ragan’s PR Daily for the PR stalwart, writing that she works with editors who actually request releases from her clients. She adds that releases provide content for social media platforms and that if PR pros include the right keywords and distribute the releases on wire services, it helps brands or products land higher in search results.
But in 2016, the editors and reporters who still have jobs are overloaded, and no one has time to read multiple paragraphs of a widely distributed release to figure out which bits are relevant to them. People are growing wary of being advertised to on social media. And the SEO claim? Doesn’t hold water anymore.
Late last year, Aly Saxe asked a similar “Why are we still talking about the death of the press release?” question on Bulldog Reporter. But this time, the suggestion was that we should stop talking about it because it’s a foregone conclusion. She pointed out that Google “no longer allows press releases to boost SEO” and that sites can be “dinged for the backlinks and duplicate content.” Saxe even said that her company, which specializes in PR software, ran a test last year, posting a release about their funding on a newswire while also pitching individual journalists who cover startup funding news. The outcome, she concluded: “100% of the media coverage we received came from knowing how to pitch journalists directly. Essentially, we paid money for zero media wins and zero SEO value.”
TechCrunch Editor at Large Mike Butcher spoke for all the journalists who feel bombarded by verbose, irrelevant press releases in a rant on his blog last July. “Mostly, ‘press releases’ are written in the way a PR’s client would write a news story. They are usually pretty rambling and designed to please the client (read: stroke their ego) rather than assist the journalist to get shit done, and fast. So, I think the press release format is DEAD.”
Instead, wrote Butcher, PR pros need to research publications and journalists and what they really write about, make sure their “news” is indeed new, write email subject lines like headlines, and always remember that their main job should be to help the journalist.
Speaking of helping the journalist, even personalized email pitches could often use a revamp. As Fast Company’s Co.Exist recently explained, “the perfect email is short, simple and not too emotional.” According to research from Boomerang, writing at a third-grade level is optimal and clarity wins. (So let’s all forever banish “utilize.” There’s never a context where “use” wouldn’t do just as well. And if you begin a pitch with “I just wanted to email you to circle back on an idea I sent you last week,” you’ve blown through a significant portion of your 125-word optimal total while saying nothing.)
No wonder so many stories are written about alternatives to old-fashioned press releases. Mashable’s top four: social media (like Snapchat or short videos on Facebook; see Ivanka Trump’s recent baby announcement), blogs (more casual), content marketing/visual storytelling, and cultivating deep relationships with reporters and bloggers who can tell your story—quite possibly better than you, as they have some outsider perspective.
In the land of hip and trendy, figuring out how to highjack the sexiest social tool as a virtual megaphone is the name of the game. The same goes for giving people the flush of being an insider when they receive that message through a channel not quite open to, or at least familiar to, the general public.
Pitching coach Michael Smart set the bar pretty high on that one in a recent webinar, “The New Rules of Media Pitching.” Among the highlights: “Do something stupendously cool that’s way more interesting than simply telling the story of their product or service” and “Employ savvy media relations people who become the brand in the eyes of key influencers” so that harried journalists have a voice they can rely on.
Yet even as the multi-paragraph, mass-distributed press release is perhaps in its final death heaves, it’s a legal mandate to use it if announcing material information and needing to share information with the public all at once. So is the best strategy to concede that the legally required release will be one arena in which PR ceases being “stories well told” and stays “facts recited accurately”?
No matter the decision you and your client make about using a press release or not, some mandates are clear: You’ve got to capture attention. As Cision recently explained, be sure the headline is clear, brief (Google displays only the first 50 to 60 characters) and tells why a company’s news is relevant to a journalist or reader. PR Newswire’s senior marketing manager, Amanda Hicken, recently spelled it all out in an A-to-Z list. (Props for creativity in coming up with X-Factor and Zombies, as in publicists who keep putting out releases without measuring to see if they’re doing their job.)
In the end, it all comes down to selling an idea speedily, sexily, personally and smart. #tellstories