Are press releases still relevant—or are they obsolete relics?

by | Jan 30, 2019 | Analysis, Public Relations

Press release addiction is a serious epidemic. PR pros recommend them because they’re a staple of our industry, marketing departments long for them and executives demand them. However, with upwards of 30 million companies in the US alone, there’s a staggering number of press releases being issued each day, considering there’s only about 50,000 journalists to read them. Yes, there are millions of blogs to also factor in, but only a fraction have an engaged following and are truly influential. And, do they want your press release? Probably not.

So, why are we so obsessed with the press release, a seemingly outdated industry relic?

The press release has been a primary public relations tool for a long time—112 years to be exact. According to The Museum of Public Relations, the first press release was issued in October 1906 by Ivy Lee on behalf of the Pennsylvania Railroad after a train derailed off a bridge in Atlantic City, New Jersey causing 50 deaths. At the time, most companies took a “public be damned” approach to news distribution, but Lee invited the press down to cover the carnage first-hand.

To ensure accurate media coverage, Lee wrote up his own statement of the event—and since it was allegedly so well-written, it was published verbatim by the New York Times (probably didn’t hurt that Lee was previously a Times reporter). Lee also famously published the Declaration of Principles which explained that the sole intention of press releases and media relations was to supply accurate details to newspaper editors and news agencies.

Ever since, companies have been announcing their news in press releases

This is the case whether it’s to set the record straight in a crisis as Lee had done, or to accurately communicate a product launch, earnings, etc. As technology evolved with the telegraph and then the fax machine, so did commercial news distribution, which was pioneered by Herbert Muschel who founded PR Newswire in 1954.

Before the internet changed everything, newsrooms were already receiving hundreds of faxes of press releases a day—more than editorial assistants could ever read in a lifetime! The volume of information has only become more overwhelming with press release distribution services going digital (and getting cheaper) and the advent of social media. Last year, Muck Rack and the Zeno Group published survey findings that only 3 percent of journalists worldwide rely on press releases from a commercial newswire and that 27 percent look to Twitter as their as their primary news source.

“In the world we live in now, there are so many ways to gather data and create story development… Social media, Twitter and LinkedIn are very key.”—Jim Pavia, Money Editor, CNBC via Muck Rack

As the press releases are pouring into journalists’ inboxes from newswires so are the pitches (often with press releases pasted in!) to the tune of 50-100+ per day. Imagine if you were getting that many emails. How would you get any work done?!

“Get to the point in the subject line and the body of the email. I would much rather see two sentences in my inbox that explain why you’re reaching out than a 1,000-word press release.”—Kerry Flynn, Marketing Reporter, Digiday via Muck Rack

Why are journalists receiving so many pitches?

Firstly, the number of PR professionals has been multiplying. According to The Guardian, in 1980, there was a 1:1 ratio of PR pros to journalists in the US and by 2010 it was 4:1 and now, according to PRWeek, it’s 6:1.

Secondly, pitching hygiene is very poor across the industry with many PR pros blasting pitches and press releases through distribution tools. Not only does this lead to journalists pretty much despising our profession, but it doesn’t earn us coverage either.

The real question to ponder is why are we still so obsessed with issuing and distributing press releases even if it’s not facilitating media coverage? Unfortunately, many people think PR stands for press release and don’t realize there’s a number of other tactics that can be used to communicate company news to journalists and directly to target audiences.

Mistakenly, companies think the more press releases they issue:

The more stories they’ll get

Biggest PR myth of all time.

Brand awareness will increase

Potentially, but it’s relatively ineffective compared to targeted advertising, advertorials, social media promotions, or better yet, earned media that helps build brand awareness and credibility simultaneously. Unless your Apple releasing the new iPhone, blasting your press release isn’t going to get much, if any, earned media.

Their stock price will increase

News is priced in already, so unless the news is very good, very material and VERY unexpected, the stock will hover around the same price unless the constant stream of press releases actually confuses investors and appears off-strategy. Then, the price will actually go down as confidence deteriorates.

It’s good for SEO

Google put a stop to that almost immediately and now commercial newswire sites use “no follow links” which makes those links ineffective for search engine optimization.

If you’re a public company, you’re still required to issue press releases for material and financial news. However, many public companies use compliance as an excuse to also issue a torrent of press releases for all of their news.

Companies that aren’t publicly traded and starting up should seriously consider limiting the number of press releases issued

Just because you issue a press release on a brand name newswire distribution service (i.e. PR Newswire, Business Wire, PRWeb, etc) and the release is re-printed on a reputable news outlet’s website, doesn’t mean journalists are going to cover your news, or that your target audiences will read them. And it’s important to remember that reprints are not real media placements, and pretty much no one reads them aside from the company who issued them and their PR firm tallying up potential reach for a metrics report.

So…what could you do instead of a press release?

  • Send a tailored, concise pitch (under 200 words) to a dozen relevant journalists/bloggers with the aim of securing a few pieces of high-quality media coverage, social posts and/or to nab a contributed article/guest blog post opportunity. And then, you can promote any coverage on your owned social and digital channels to get even more bang for your buck.
  • Engage brand ambassadors and/or influencers to spread the word for you with awesome content you create or they generate. You don’t have to go celebrity or macro and spend a fortune. There’s organizations like Tribe and WeGo Health who connect companies with groups of micro-influencers with engaged followings of 5K-25K.
  • Write a blog post or develop an infographic and promote it using organic, earned and/or paid social media to amplify it’s reach.
  • Use video—according to Bulldog Reporter, 40 percent of communicators are now using live video of CEOs on social media to break news and build thought leadership in a more authentic way.
  • Hold a Twitter chat with industry experts.
  • Use an email alert / newsletter to communicate non-material news to investors and customers.

Press releases may not be done for quite yet, but it’s definitely time to evolve with the rapidly changing media landscape to get better results.

Shalon Roth
Shalon Roth has spent the last 15 years on the front lines of PR and communications agencies serving start-ups to multinational publicly traded companies. She’s the founder of PR-it, a global community of communications experts delivering 24/7 on-demand work for agencies and curated project teams for brands. She also co-authored How to Succeed in a PR Agency: Real Talk to Grow Your Career & Become Indispensable (Routledge 2019).