Planning the evolution of press releases

Don't expect press releases to cease to exist anytime soon. But look for them to evolve rather than die out.

Despite many reports to the contrary, press releases are not in danger of extinction. Yet both their content and distribution methods will have to evolve to keep up with the changing communications landscape, say industry executives who spoke with PRWeek.

The debate over the role of press releases has been bubbling for many years. While social media has drastically changed communications, the format of the traditional press release has, for the most part, remained the same.

Last week, communications firm Greentarget published a report that showed journalists are getting bombarded with press releases – 45% get 50 or more a week while 21% get at least 100 – but the majority spend less than a minute reading them.

The report, based on a survey of 100 journalists and focus groups with US editors (51%) and reporters (49%), as well as a handful of producers and other staffers, revealed that journalists want releases to get to the point more quickly and serve as a concise presentation of the facts.

"One minute is a short time and should present a learning opportunity for the profession as it reflects the value journalists are getting from our releases," says Aaron Schoenherr, founding partner of Greentarget.

Many brands and agencies are experimenting with the traditional press-release format. Last October, Amazon's PR team launched the latest Kindle Fire tablet with 14 tweets. Each tweet focused on a different specification of the product, and the company also published a traditional press release alongside it.

Dell is one company rethinking its relationship with the press release. While it continues to produce traditional statements that are distributed over the wires and via its corporate Web site, it relies on blog posts instead for certain announcements, explains Laura Thomas, chief blogger at Direct2Dell, its official blog.

For example, Dell announced last week via a blog post that it will take Bitcoin payments. Thomas points out that a CNBC report that linked to the post referred to it as a "release."

"Journalists are looping all these things together," she says. "I do think the press release will live on for a long time, but it can be supplemented with other elements."

The rise of tweets and even text messages in communications has limited the number of characters used in messages, and it has spurred on a "less is more" way of communicating that should also apply to press releases, says Maggie O’Neill, partner and MD of Peppercomm.

"The press release has to change because it is not how we communicate today," she says.

O’Neill expects multimedia elements and bullet points to become more prevalent in company-issued statements. She also contends that the industry focuses too much on writing in Associated Press style when a release should be in a brand’s own voice.

"Clients need to change their ways, too, because 99% of the time, a five-page press release is not an agency’s idea," O’Neill explains. "We need to push clients to change their way of thinking so their releases are not being ignored."

However, the intended audience of press releases extends beyond journalists to investors, points out Hava Jeroslow, content strategy director at Waggener Edstrom. She argues for this reason that the typical release won’t immediately change much, but that in the next five years, more companies will "crack the code" and create better press releases.

Jeroslow says that all press releases must contain three elements: information and data points, context, and a call to action, such as a link to another piece of content.

"There will be a different way of thinking about the press release – as just one type of content in a tool kit available to tell your story," she says.

According to Greentarget, quotations used in press releases are not popular with journalists because they are not substantive enough or because the language is unnatural, not to mention the fact that quoting directly from press releases is frowned upon in many journalistic circles.

One-third of respondents (31%) say they rarely use quotations from press releases, while 13% said they never use them at all. The survey shows that 28% of journalists regularly use quotes from releases, and the same number only uses them on deadline.

Jeroslow says this is a missed opportunity for PR professionals because quotes, if used well, can add value to a release.

"A quote is a great place to add context. It is a great way to editorialize and tell the story about why it matters," she explains. "If the quote doesn’t do that, then don’t use it."

However, journalists’ behavior using press releases is unlikely to change, especially because they often have little time to turn around a story, notes Ken Shuman, VP of communications at NerdWallet.

"I'm not a huge fan of press releases, but I don't believe they will be extinct anytime soon," he says. "Journalists are on tight deadlines, and I do find that when they are pressed for time, they will still use the quotes from the press release in their articles."

Shuman adds that he does not see any major format changes to the typical press release in the next few years, but believes they will be distributed differently.

"A press release is just one of many distribution channels that journalists rely on. [Journalists] are happy to receive news in different formats and via multiple delivery channels, whether it is a blog post that gets tweeted or a press release that lands in their inbox," he adds.

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