Let’s face it, rarely a week goes by where a PR pro isn’t asked to write a press release announcing “BIG NEWS.” While PR professionals all evaluate these requests differently, there is one constant we all agree on: these requests don’t always make sense. In some instances a press release is a great idea for your individual business reasons (it’s newsworthy, announces a partner, SEO, gets the word out, etc.), but sometimes the news simply isn’t newsworthy or the story idea is just plain silly. When I receive such a request I ask 3 simple questions that help to evaluate if a press release is the best course of action.
But first, in order to understand why our business partners regularly request press releases, I look to the evolution of the distribution process and how our colleagues perceive release effectiveness.
THEN: Those of us who have been in PR for more than 15 years remember the day when a press release was the most valuable tool in our arsenal. Back in the day, reporters actually looked to the wires to provide stories. It was a magical time.
I’ll never forget the first press release I wrote. I was in college working for University Affairs and we were announcing funding for a new music center: this was very big news. I was very green and my first PR mentor, Andrei, walked me through the mechanics of a release. We worked together and got it out to the wire and local papers before the end of the day. I was excited, but he reminded me that not all releases were picked up by the press and explained that I needed to get on the phone and make a few calls.
I left messages for a handful of reporters, alerting them to the release and directing them to the wire. Remember, this before email was common in newsrooms, so we regularly used the phone.
I don’t recall actually talking to anyone live, but I clearly remember the next day. I walked into the office and Andrei tossed me the local daily paper.
Right there, on page B6, was my story. And, not only was it my story, it was my press release. They had printed it word for word. I was so proud! My release had accomplished exactly what it was supposed to, an article in the local newspaper.
NOW: Today, press releases are different. It’s not that the press release itself has changed; it’s the distribution. The very nature of how press releases are distributed today often leads to the misunderstanding of, and extreme enthusiasm for, their success amongst non-PR folks. Wire releases are amazing, but we have to understand how their distribution works to use them properly and set to expectations.
Back in the time I described above press releases were not commonplace. The barriers to entry were higher, and as a result the masses were not issuing tens-of-thousands of releases every day through the dozens of online press release wire services now available. The Internet was still in its infancy and wire services were still reserved for PR folks willing to pay the fee and publishers looking for stories.
Today, anyone with a small amount of money can issue a release using an online wire service to distribute. When you do this your release makes its way to every news aggregator in your chosen distribution area. This is both a good thing, and a bad thing.
On one hand, it’s great to know that if you pay the fee for a wire press release distribution, you can count on it being “picked up” by dozens if not hundreds of news outlets. When a news outlet republishes a press release it does indeed get your release out into the world, making it searchable both on the news outlet website and through major search engines. This can be great exposure for your company, the news you’re sharing, and it gives your release a substantial, almost evergreen, shelf life.
On the other hand, having your wire release aggregated to news websites gives internal, non-PR audiences the false impression of coverage, leading to more requests for press releases. I have always found this situation to be tricky to explain. Yes, the release is indeed published on news sites like the LA Times, but can you find it without searching for it on their website or on Google?
The answer is no. Syndicated press release postings are not navigable. There are not links to the release on the news website homepage or other relevant topical section pages. This means that other people, your audience, customers, etc., are not seeing the article, unless they search for the news. Yes, people will see the news, but not as many people as some believe or hope.
Wire releases, as described above have merit, and do make sense if aligned to your business goals. Just make sure that your internal business partners understand how wire service syndication works so you avoid misconceptions.
By understanding how press releases work and why our colleagues want them (or think they do) we can then put on our logical PR hats and ask a few questions that will help us to decide if writing a press release makes sense.
On the surface it may seem that a newsworthiness test would be enough to evaluate if your news warrants a press release, but in truth it only answers a one of the important questions.
Testing for newsworthiness tells you if you have a story. Testing for whether you should issue a press release lets you know if there’s a business case for an actual release, as opposed to a pitch, an email, etc.
When someone asks me to write a press release I answer with, “That is a great idea, let’s talk about that! What are we hoping this press release will accomplish for us?”
This question moves our discussion away from the release itself and towards the business problem they believe a press release will solve. I find that the answer to this question is rarely related to newsworthiness. Often times the answer makes the press release sensible from a business perspective: I find that business partners often want to announce a new partner, a new product or a promotion that may help sales in a variety of ways rather than reach the press. Sometimes a release remains a good idea even when the topic lacks newsworthiness. In cases like this issuing a press release is fine so long as you set expectations with the requester up front.
This can be a hard question to ask, and can put people on the defensive, but it is important. People often have trouble being 100% objective and feel that if their news is exciting to them it will be exciting to everyone. This simply is not true, unfortunately: as it is in your social life, so it is in business. If your news isn’t exciting to another influential group outside of your own company – be it a customer, the press, a partner or a prospect – you should skip the release.
If the requested press release is indeed newsworthy and/or has practical business purpose, does it need to be a press release? Can it be a pitch? Is your business partner actually asking for customer communication or email?
I’ve learned that when a non-PR pro requests a press release they often don’t realize the mechanics of PR, and sometimes think a press release is the only method/tool we use to get news out. It is our job to help decide if a press release is the best manner for getting the news to a journalist or intended audience for consideration.
Asking these three questions of my colleagues over the years has proven helpful in determining when a press release is the right path. There’s no hard and fast rule saying what answers lead to a press release and which answers say you should not issue a release, but asking these 3 questions always allows you to analyze the situation and make the decision that makes sense for your business.
If you practice this general evaluation strategy I believe that your colleagues will be happy that you’ve had the conversation, and respect the decisions you make as a team. Well, most of them will; some of them will be annoyed, especially when you say no, but at least they’ll understand the reason.