The Press Release is Dead (Now Will Somebody Please Tell the Clients?)
In competing for a piece of business not too long ago, my PR firm was asked to supply three samples each of recent clips, bylined articles we'd authored for clients, and press releases.
For two of the three requirements, the issue was our embarrassment of riches. But for press releases, we were hard-pressed. These days, we write fewer and fewer press releases - most being the obligatory personnel announcements sprinkled with the periodic feature release. We just don't see them as being as important a tool for PR practitioners as they once were.
Yes, there are exceptions. For disclosure purposes, news releases on occurrences or developments that could materially impact a publicly held company are mandatory. And some businesses have real "news" to report, even if they're not publicly held, that may lend itself to distribution via news release.
But despite the popular image of PR firms as press release factories and their account personnel as pitching machines, and the regrettable fact that many still churn them out and indiscriminately blanket the media with releases that have little or no relevance, the reality is that they're pretty much dead as a piece of the strategic communications arsenal.
Think about it. As a society, we've gone from the era of mass production, mass merchandising, and mass marketing to one where customization is king. In this environment, press releases are to PR professionals what the 30-second television commercial is becoming to the advertising industry. As far as most reporters and editors are concerned, they are overproduced; they lack differentiation; they generally aren't relevant; and the vast majority just aren't coverage-worthy.
As a profession, we must be falling down on the job of providing education and counsel. Why else would prospects, clients and their bosses still insist on "expertise" in developing press releases, when the pertinent question should be: "For our business and our purposes, what are the most effective ways to get media coverage?"
Understanding the client and the thinking/strategy behind its offerings is a first step leading to the best possible storyline hooks. It takes getting to know the company and its positioning - intimately. What differentiates it from the competition. The thinking by senior level people in the organization that makes it great.
This takes an investment of time and requires the PR professional to think and act like a reporter in order to gather the intelligence that leads to more than just message points, but solid story ideas that will position the company in the best possible light. Researching trends, issues and concerns in the industry generally and the company specifically will provide the fodder for probing questions to form the basis of useful interviews with appropriate executives.
The exercise adds to your knowledge base and gives you an idea of problematic areas that may have to be countered publicly at some point. While giving the executives a taste of the interview process for future reference, it also allows you position yourself as someone who is thinking more strategically and has advanced beyond the PR 101 rote.
The second step is to target your media markets and customize your message accordingly. Even products with mass consumer appeal will get more buzz with journalists if you narrow your focus and customize your positioning to reflect the individual journalist's beat, orientation, likes, dislikes, and recent coverage topics, as well as the publication's positioning with readers. Much of this intelligence can be gathered through services like MediaMap, or the old fashioned way - by doing a byline search and skimming through the journalist's past articles (or segments in the case of the electronic media).
A short, personalized e-mail - three paragraphs at most - to the targeted journalists with a to-the-point lead-in should not only outline the storyline, but also emphasize its relevance to the outlet's audiences. This personal approach is going to have a far greater chance of grabbing the reporter's attention than a news release that's written for the masses.
The third step is to ensure the people who are actually doing the phone call or email follow-up in pitching the story are brought up to speed on the context of the angle and overall client positioning. In short, they have to be prepared to answer at least some of the reporter's basic questions. A pet peeve of mine when I was a journalist, was receiving a mass-produced press release that was followed up by a telephone pitch by "sweet young things" whose responses to the simplest questions was inevitably, "Ummmm, I don't know. Is it important?" Their unpreparedness reflects poorly on them and the organization they're representing.
For years, the PR profession has indulged in considerable hand wringing over the perceived lack of respect accorded the discipline, particularly vis a vis other communications disciplines like marketing and advertising. It would help were more practitioners to go beyond the numbers game to ensure broader trends were reflected in performance of even the most basic functions.
Sally Saville Hodge is president of Hodge Communications, Inc. (http://www.hodgecommunications.com), a strategic Chicago-based public relations and marketing communications firm. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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