Bell Pottinger’s David Wilson discusses the future of press releases and asks if they have a future

Ever since the birth of our industry, press releases have been a core part of our armoury – the basic written channel through which we’ve often conveyed our customer message. So can it really be true that life has turned so topsy turvy that our much loved weapon is now dead? RIP our fantastic words of prose?

For sure, our industry has been changing in the past decade at its greatest ever speed of evolution. Digital channels and online engagement have changed the way we promote, manage and also defend our brands. But can the press release really have no part in either our current or future work?

OK, I can hold back no longer. What utter tosh! Press releases are here to stay. There, I said it. I’ve nailed my colours to the mast. Perhaps I’m just too long in the tooth or stuck in my ways, but press releases really do have a future. It’s just the way that they’re shaped and delivered that’s evolving, and will continue to evolve in decades to come.

How can I be so certain? Let’s look at the facts.

What do press releases do? According to that font of all modern knowledge, Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Press_release): “A press release, news release, media release, or press statement is a written or recorded communication directed at members of the news media for the purpose of announcing something claimed at having news value.”

So what’s changed now to suggest its demise? Well nothing in reality. The internet has challenged the way we communicate, the channels we use and how we combat the advent of the citizen journalist. But the web is simply another channel through which to deliver our messages – and the biggest one at that. It’s part of an evolution in communication that’s taken place in each of the last decade. And yes, I am old enough to remember the time when there were only three terrestrial television channels and no digital TV, no email, no mobile phones or BlackBerries and certainly no worldwide web.

Where press releases are changing is the shape and composition in which they are delivered. They are evolving to meet the needs of new mediums. So if you’re not now considering the merits of digital releases, with embedded video, high-resolution images, sharing options and so on, then you’re being left behind. It’s here, online, that news remains indefinitely and we must bear in mind that our press release and content is appropriately coded and tagged so it can be found when people are searching. By using YouTube for video, Flickr for images and Twitter for what we now refer to as ‘social media relations’, we are also pushing stories further to journalists, bloggers and the end users. Some technological nous will help, but so to will the basic writing skills and clever messaging that have always underpinned the writing of a press release … even back in the dark ages!

The text release certainly is dead. We need to use more ways of providing journalists with images, video, audio, animations, transcripts, polls and social media updates. Why? Journalists face more copy and multi-media deadlines. They are now often judged by hits per story/visitor time to their websites; need to drive readers from print and broadcast to the web; and must also be aware of what’s being said and what is relevant in social media. And yet they simply don’t have the research time without a helping hand from their friendly PROs.

So does this mean the offline release is dead? No. A massive offline market still exists. Millions still buy newspapers and magazines each and every day (as well as viewing them through online portals), and the press release remains a basic means for conveying information to a mass target.

But what of those who profess to hate and despise us PR folks: journalists?

The bete noir of Fleet Street’s finest; we’ve always been accused of being an unnecessary barrier to the target of their attention – the chairmen, CEOs, FDs and others whom we do indeed seek to protect. But media forget the help and stories that we do provide them.

It’s here we get back to the humble press release. Be clever, don’t mass mail, but think about the target audience, about the pressure that they are under to deliver to deadlines with threadbare staff numbers, and give them only what they want: news that will appeal to them, in their role. Don’t bombard them with unhelpful drivel that simply won’t make the grade.

It might also sound like a pretty basic requirement but we PR folks also have to have key contacts in media; journalists with whom we have built relationships and can speak to direct to tell our tale. I state this case because in my career I’ve witnessed a senior PR practitioner who’d made the move to PR after a distinguished career in national newspapers, but who simply wouldn’t pick up the phone to the ‘brothers and sisters’ he should have known and indeed understood. Another career beckoned …

I digress. Today, press releases still retain the same importance that they have always had. As long as media continue to sell stories, why on earth will they disappear? Their composition may be different, but they represent the same way of conveying our story and pitching it to our target audience.

As the saying goes, word of the death of the press release has been greatly exaggerated!

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