Don’t just fire out press releases and hope for success: pick up the phone and treat journalists like people.
It’s said that the first press release was sent in 1906 when Ivy Lee, the American publicist who literally invented the term ‘public relations’, convinced his client, a railroad, to issue a public statement following a deadly crash. PR lore states that this technique was so novel that the New York Times printed the whole statement verbatim.
Back when the release was first invented, information was sparse and word travelled very slowly. Journalists barely had telephones. Telegrams could only convey so much. Photographs took hours, if not days, to arrive with picture editors.
Any new information, whatever its source, was an asset.
Companies and their PRs saw a way in. What if they could become an information source in their own right? So that’s what they did: they started providing information to the journalists covering them. In an information-starved world, journalists probably loved it, at least for a while.
Ivy Lee’s original statement was factual and reactive. His client was the subject of the story, rumours and allegations were swirling about negligence or wrongdoing. Surely, something had to be done, and so that’s what he did.
Press releases like this still make a lot of sense. If journalists are writing or asking about you, it’s probably safe to assume that they’re interested in hearing your side of the story.
Ideally, you’d want to do this one-on-one, but if every media outlet is demanding immediate comment, having a spokesperson or head honcho talk to each of them isn’t going to be feasible. And in sensitive situations, the risk of talking out of turn is too high anyway. Sending a release is an easy way to get out a single, controlled message to everyone.
At some point in the 111 years since its invention, though, the press release suffered from a serious bout of mission creep. It became the default tool for proactive media outreach.
It is now common PR practice to put out a press release pretty much whenever anything happens involving a client, however mundane.
A strange wisdom developed that said that journalists were so lazy that if you just wrote your release like a newspaper article, they would probably quote it verbatim.
Worse still, it became common to ‘fire and forget’ releases. Write it up, get it approved, slap it on the website, send it to hacks and see what happens.
This probably has something to do with PRs, both in-house and at agencies, under pressure from people who don’t really get the industry and feeling the need to show that they were doing something.
Used in this way, releases are almost worse than useless. It’s like screaming into an empty void.
The fact is, nothing beats picking up the phone and actually, you know, having a conversation with the journalist you’re trying to get to cover you. The problem is that this tends to involve work. The hardest part of PR is finding out who is interested in the story you have to tell.
Yes, they might hang up. Often they won’t even answer. Or they’ll talk to you and say ‘not for us, thanks.’ The second-hardest part of PR is accepting that, sometimes, no one is interested in what you have to say, and that’s OK.
But sometimes it works. If you manage to get them to pay attention, listen to what you have to say and, maybe – just maybe – decide to write something that mentions you in a positive light, all that effort pays off. It’s a thrill that a press release just can’t replicate.