Monday, December 23, 2013

Stop Writing Press Releases

A number of our clients ask us to publish Press Releases. In the past, we've quietly questioned the value of this activity while proceeding with the task. Going forward, we're telling clients: Don't publish Press Releases.

You should stop too.

The Press Release originates in a 1906 train wreck - no joke. The Pennsylvania Railroad knew they had a PR disaster on their hands, so they wrote their own happier version of what happened. They brought in journalists and photographers to a cleaned-up scene to try to beat legitimate reporting about the event to the punch. It worked. It expanded in the 1930s, when the first Political Consultants published a book detailing how to run a political campaign. This evangelized their campaigning services, including press release publishing. They saw that most news organizations were small, underfunded and desperate for stories, and knew that by taking payment from their clients, they could write stories and hand them directly to papers for free. The papers, desperate to fill their paper with something on slow news days, would often take the bait.

Now let's fast forward to today's internet, where confused Press Releases continue to be published by the thousands. What were the factors that made Press Releases successful in the 1930s, and how does today relate?

Limited Supply of Stories
This is a major difference between today's internet and 1930s print. Old papers had to actually go and get their news by real reporting, or by rewording another paper's story. But today we have the AP and Reuters, who any news organization can cheaply pay to backfill when their reporters have nothing to turn in. They can even run no news of their own and just run a slanted cherry-picked series of news items from these same sources that suit their narrative (as Fox News and Huffington Post do). They don't need your Press Release.

Fixed Length of Publication
Older newspapers had to be roughly the same length each day to meet ad buy requirements and customer expectations. Companies still need revenue, but they can get that revenue in many ways today besides picking up a free story to run. For one, they can get paid to run a paid-for article that masquerades as a legitimate one, a more modern (and more pricey) version of a Press Release. Web publications don't need to be the same length on big and slow news days, and can backfill missing revenue without adding your unpaid press release.

Many niche news outlets are focused on their own small market niche audience, topic, or narrative - like cherry-picking the news for "the government is out to ruin your day." It's fairly unlikely many niche news outlets suit a single press release. That said, it is possible you could submit a normal story, rewritten to match the narrative bent of each of several small niche outlets. This however is fairly distant from a lazy Press Release written once and sent out for free to see what sticks to the wall, and has less reach at greater expense.

Less Direct Publishing
The 1900s included much less direct publishing, which meant that when a story was published, it was much harder for a small minority of informed readers to point out its inaccuracies (for the blunt: lies). This made exaggerating your successes and understating your failures more effective, with less blowback. There are now many famous cases where the exact opposite has happened online - a company or politician is caught in a bold-faced lie and an online campaign mounts to penalize that entity far worse than what the lie would have gained them. Given their original purpose was to whitewash a tragic event or overstate an accomplishment, the benefit of a press release is more limited online than it was in the 1930s.

Direct Lobbying of Publishers
Many companies today will simply put a press release online and say, "I've just published it worldwide." Well yes, the internet is worldwide; but there's so much published to it, if you don't actively push your message in front of users, graffiti on the sidewalk will get more readership than something you tossed up onto your website. The days of "This is one of the few things online, so it will get free press" are over. The original strategy of a Press Release came with direct, active lobbying of news organizations, so simply publishing a Press Release to your website and calling it a day not only makes little sense by today's standards - it doesn't even make sense by 1906 standards. In addition, pay-for content now has many more explicit (including some illegal but prominent) channels - and news organizations are more universally desperate for cash than content.

A Shift in Legitimacy
In the 1900s it was common to choose names that sounded like an official bureau, perhaps of the government, like "General Motors," "General Mills," "Standard Oil" - a bit like the names today's SuperPACs use. The 1930s political consulting press release company was named the "California Feature Service." They'd use that official-sounding name to submit to newspapers and get those stories in. The name generated an implicit trust in American culture then. These kinds of dry names bring less trust and authority today than they did back then, for many reasons like a decrease in trust in government, an increase in direct publishing as mentioned above, an increase in "friendly" brands that tweet back to you on social media rather than acting as stoic authorities, and others. An increase in skepticism reduces the potential benefit of a press release.

So, my conclusion: Do not publish Press Releases. The idea is a hundred years old, for a news industry that has seen massive change. They make your brand look old and out of touch. Who is picking up this Adobe press release and excitedly sharing it with others? A Press Release is craven in the best light, corrupt in the worst light, and whether craven behavior is something your company will entertain or not, it can hurt your brand. At best it can have no impact. At worst a misleading statement in it will result in a grassroots online campaign against you, backed by a damning screenshot of the statement on your own company website. If you find yourself writing something that begins "FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE," your next step should be to click Delete.

Stop publishing Press Releases. The world has changed a lot since 1906. So should your company.