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It’s Not The Press Release – Your Flack Is Broken

August 3, 2012

The photo of this dinner bell is from Flickr, and is the copyright of Don LaVange.

I received a well-written and engaging sales pitch (pulled from this blog entry on e-releases.com) from Mickie Kennedy selling PR distribution services. It opened with a query on why CEOs had little respect for press releases.

Unfortunately, the pitch delved into potential tactical weaknesses around unsuccessful press releases, rather than the real issue: CEOs often don’t have respect for the press release because they don’t have respect for the flack who wrote it.

The fact that many in-house PR people are still hung up on using press releases as an important vehicle to influence coverage is a good indication that they may be justly underrated.

The press release is an archaic form of communication that made a lot of sense when major communications needed to be transmitted on paper or by wire. When communication relied on paper, and getting the physical piece of paper in people’s hands took a lot of work, it made sense to couple the facts with catch-all positioning and context. After all, you might only get one shot at communicating with the reporter around any given announcement.

When I was a wire service reporter in the age of the Internet, the press release only served the purpose of letting me know that “news” had been announced by someone. I usually found the contextual information in the release (beyond the useful heads-up that something was the “first,” “only,” biggest” etc. deal of its type) to be an annoying case of “one-size-fits none.” In nearly every case, I would have been happier with a bullet list of the key facts rather than a release.

The flacks who pitched me successfully were those who had context and story ideas tailored to my beat which accompanied the release in an attached e-mail. This took thought and wit, and the handful of times that it happened, it paid off for the communications officer doing the pitching.

When I moved to the PR agency side, I followed the successful pitching model that worked on myself when I was a reporter. My “pitch” was in the e-mail that had a press release attachment. That emailed pitch was tailored by beat and publication type and was, in essence, a tear sheet that the reporter could take to her editor that outlined the first few paragraphs of the story. And it was THAT communication that did the lion’s share of the work towards getting a placement.

On the agency side, I was usually able to successfully pitch a poorly written release created by the client, on the strength of the personalized communication that accompanied it. (Note that this was NOT a function of relationships – this worked just as often with cold outreach as with “contacts.”) In most of those cases, the reporter gave only a cursory glance at the release itself.

So, as a reporter and flack, the press release, if it enters the picture at all, was to a) substantiate that there was “news” going on; and, perhaps, b) provide a quote for anyone who was in too much of a rush to do an interview.

The press release was, in effect, the dinner bell. But it was up to me as a reporter or flack to provide made-to-order meal in the form of context around the facts that were being announced.

I have been running marketing and communications in-house for a technology company for some time now. With the rise of the real-time news cycle and social media, I would imagine that the press release has become even less important. In my job, I’m expected to create engaging content that start real conversations with all of our stakeholders. The press release is often not the right tool for this job.

To be sure, the press release is EXTREMELY important for me as an internal guide for staff. I use the press release to get our spokespeople on the same page on timing, coordination, and high-level messaging around major announcements. The press release also serves an important function from a search-engine optimization perspective – relevant keywords need to be displayed high, and often, for all the outlets that simply re-print those release.

But that’s a completely different use than what Mickie is talking about.

Bottom line on the bottom line: Any flack that is still looking for the press release to really tell their story to a wider audience is at least a decade behind the times… and probably not worthy of much respect.

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One Comment
  1. Mickie got back to me by e-mail, referencing a blog post here: http://azpublishingservices.blogspot.com/2011_09_01_archive.html

    Here was my reply on that blog in case it gets taken down:

    Mickie,

    Thanks for reading my post on the lack of respect for press releases, entitled Your Flack Is Broken.

    I’m responding to your e-mail here; I’ve put myself out there with my opinions, as have you. I figure that this is an interesting enough issue that it would be worth keeping our discussion out in the open.

    I’m assuming that you’ve heard my argument about the decreasing relevance of press releases before – your note to me to counter it is the copy in the post above. (Your first e-mail to me was also a blog post. Hmmmm – Are you alive, Mickie, or are you just an amalgam of pre-written blog posts? 🙂 )

    Say what you want about my article – I’m an ex-reporter, and an ex-agency PR person and I’m working full-time as an in-house marketer.. So, while I wouldn’t argue that I’m trying to get people to read my blog, I’m not selling a marketing service. (My product is me, and my current employer – a financial technology provider – has already checked me out.)

    So, while you might call my headline “link chum,” please, don’t call it “link bait.” 🙂

    All the arguments in your post in favor of press releases are great marketing outcomes. However, they are tactic agnostic goals.

    I’m not “against” press releases any more than I’m “against” fax machines. You need a fax machine to do marketing. However, it’s an archaic tool and not one that is particularly important, in my opinion. It’s also becoming less important as time goes on, in my opinion.

    Alive or not, I think you’re a great writer of blogs and e-mails. You’ve picked the right message for the right channels. These interactions are becoming increasingly important for building brand and sales as time goes on.

    The messages that you developed, and articulate so deftly, would not be particularly well suited to a press release, which is the point I was making.

    Anyway, drop me a line on my blog,davidzweifler.wordpress.com, if you want to talk some more. I appreciate your feedback, and hope you will keep in touch.

    Dave

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