Op-Ed: Fifty years later, PR Newswire still changing face of PR

Fifty years ago, it was a paradigm shift for PR - decades before anybody knew exactly what a paradigm shift actually meant.

Fifty years ago, it was a paradigm shift for PR - decades before anybody knew exactly what a paradigm shift actually meant.

It was March 8, 1954. From his living room, an entrepreneur named Herbert Muschel sent out a two-page announcement for his new company.

The idea seemed modest - cajole Big Apple publicists to start sending news releases to New York media outlets through a new PR service that distributed news instantly by teletype to newsrooms across the city.

And with that modest start, PR Newswire, the first of the corporate newswires, was born. And for generations of corporate PR pros that would follow, the world would never quite be the same.

Today, corporate newswires feed a constant stream of information directly into thousands of print and broadcast newsrooms worldwide, and have become a vital tool for corporate communicators to instantly share their news, disclose important information to the investment community, and reach into the ubiquity of electronic news and information services.

It was truly the evolution of a revolution. Born in New York, corporate newswires sprang up in Chicago and Detroit, and through the 1960s, the system became networked nationwide.

When I first entered the newsroom in the 1970s, America had long since landed a man on the moon, but reporters were still literally pounding out stories on manual typewriters.

It was a time when the "news cycle" was clearly defined, orderly, and straightforward. Reporters and editors, myself included, were the point players in an egocentric world where we considered ourselves "gatekeepers" - self-appointed guardians of the "public trust" - controlling the primary conduit from newsmaker to news consumer.

For PR pros, reporters were often considered "speed bumps" standing between important announcements and the papers, magazines, and broadcasts that actually reached the audience.

As time went on, PR Newswire and Business Wire were growing up as an increasingly credible "single point of push" through hardwired teletypes and through fax blasts and, as technology allowed, e-mail - as snail-mail began its slow transition from irrelevance to obscurity.

As a reporter, I begrudgingly conceded that the corporate wire services performed a crucial function - providing a stream of potential story ideas in a format where information was easily accessible, quickly reviewable, and immediately actionable.

When I switched to the corporate side about 15 years ago to work with Fortune 500 companies, I gained a new appreciation for the value proposition.

During the 1990s, PR Newswire and Business Wire leveraged the internet to lead PR into another paradigm shift - perhaps the most important of our generation - the transition from a news push to a news pull.

First, the wires forged relationships with online databases. Then the explosion in the web combined with the insatiable interest in business news to slowly turn the tables on the mainstream media. For the first time, the corporate newswires enabled news releases to jump the media speed bump - bypassing the filter and moving through the web, e-mail, and other electronic vehicles directly to news consumers in real time.

As a reporter, I thought this to be a horrifying development. As a corporate communicator, I see it as progress, especially considering the speed, accuracy, and reliability of newswire services.

Today, in addition to the humble news release, corporate wire services increasingly offer a free-wheeling conduit for multimedia distribution.

A release crossing at 8:29am is often the Reuters "snap" a minute or two later. The ability to ensure a CEO's quote appears unedited across thousands of other sites fed by the corporate newswires has great value, both to sender and recipient.

That's not to say there haven't been setbacks. Some companies, just as some news services, have stumbled amid the excesses of the internet boom-and-bust. Once again, we were all reminded that hype hurts. However, we learn, and we move on.

As technology continues to redefine what we all do and how we do it, reporters, PR pros, and corporate wire services all share the need for speed, accuracy, and reliability. Simultaneously, we must be vigilant that credibility is the currency of what we do.

So at the age of 50, the idea of a news service for PR has helped us to democratize information so that breaking news isn't just for the privileged.

Half a century after serving as a catalyst for one paradigm shift, they remain at the vanguard of yet another.

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