The Press Release – What is the modern role?

15 03 2010

The press release, that iconic tool of the PR industry is also one of the most understood. Those unfamiliar with contemporary pubic relations practices (and many an undergraduate communications major) are often under the impression that writing press releases is the sole major function of a PR department or professional. Conversely, those most up on the social media and Web 2.0 see the traditional press release as a dying institution and increasingly obsolete.

Neither of these myths are true. Press releases are simply a tool that public relations professionals use to convey their message. The entire tone and shape of any good press release is the product of countless hours of strategy, with the intent that any coverage generated is of a desired nature. What has changed is the format. No longer do PR offices fax out press releases by the ream to smoky newspaper offices; today’s press releases are distributed electronically and posted online in various ways to generate maximum coverage.

Some of the most prevalent arguments for the “press releases are dead” crowd include claims that no one has time to read press releases, press releases are targeted too generally, or that the press release format is too time-consuming and gets the writer behind the game in this age of instant information. I would argue that while some of these points are valid, they are simply describing the nature of today’s communication technology. It is up to the PR company to adapt to new conditions and see the prospects for increased coverage and visibility.

The fact is that press releases are still the main go-to for journalists hard-pressed for a story topic. Just because a particular topic is trending on Twitter or has generated a sizable Facebook group, writers still need hard data, usable quotes and credible sources. Additionally, professional journalists create the vast majority of original news content on the web. While their work may be reblogged, linked to, quoted or just straight-up plagiarized, the content is still driven by any press release that informed said story. Thus the information age has created a situation in which the information from press releases can be amplified to a substantial degree.

Part of the new reality concerning press releases is their entrance into the public domain. Before the web, most of the general public never saw them and was thus unfamiliar with the format. Today, press releases posted on a major company’s website instantly become part of the public domain. Spiders for search engines make press releases high in news searches. Amateur journalists and bloggers, should they take the time can pore over them here. Releases are linked to in both articles and sites like Wikipedia, making them part of the public domain as well a relevant piece of history.

Press releases will not die because they are the essential who/what/where/why, they are the raw data and building blocks for a good story. PR professionals who wish to stay ahead of the game must adapt to changing technological realities and write press releases that can be read by Pulitzer-winning authors as well as soccer moms blogging while the kids are out. Releases should be akin to blog posts, full of relevant links and rich media options. Great examples can be found for SoBe and Final Fantasy XIII here.

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