THE TROUBLE WITH PRESS RELEASES: Journalists are drowning in press releases. There are too many. They’re too long. And sometimes, they’re not even aimed at the press. Isadore Barmash reports

Ask any journalist what they think about the standard of modern press releases and they will almost certainly find fault. They’re not all bad, of course, but some argue that the problem is getting worse, and it’s a problem that is troubling many PR pros.

Ask any journalist what they think about the standard of modern press releases and they will almost certainly find fault. They’re not all bad, of course, but some argue that the problem is getting worse, and it’s a problem that is troubling many PR pros.

Ask any journalist what they think about the standard of modern

press releases and they will almost certainly find fault. They’re not

all bad, of course, but some argue that the problem is getting worse,

and it’s a problem that is troubling many PR pros.

All kinds of reasons can be cited for this trouble - a sea change in the

business of communication, the proliferation of media, a generational

change in the practitioners - but the simple press release is no longer

either simple or just a press release. Nowadays, the release is targeted

at a company’s full panoply of constituents. And it is shot-gunned at

them through the fax, voice mail and the Internet. As a result, its

standards have not only declined but the ungainly bird is languishing

for attention and even love.

The press release, then, appears to be in serious decline, with its

replacement, the ’corporate statement,’ in ascendancy. The upshot is

that, in many cases, today’s press release is largely useless, at least

as far as the media is concerned. ’As much as 90% of the releases I get

are neither informative or useful to me,’ says Anita Hamilton, Time

magazine’s associate editor for technology. ’The quality is all over the

map,’ reports Michael Freedman, general manager of the CBS Radio

Network. ’My reaction is like so-so at about 80%,’ adds Paul Colford,

publishing columnist at Newsday.

The same sentiments were expressed by all the journalists we polled (see


Public relations people conceive that there is a problem. ’I’m appalled

at many press releases I see,’ asserts Richard Stern, head of Stern &

Company, a New York agency. ’They don’t get to the point and they bury

the news. And they’re not written properly,’ Stern adds. Brian McGlynn,

the director of corporate media relations for Pfizer, the big

pharmaceuticals firm, observes: ’The quality of work I see is certainly

declining. There’s no substitute for the solid, 25-word lead, hard-news

press release. That’s something any PR pro should be able to knock out

with regularity as should any reporter. But you rarely see it.’

On both sides of the communications divide, it’s agreed that no single

factor can explain the problem.


Alan Elias, senior managing director for Hill & Knowlton, Los Angeles,

believes the press release is declining, but not across the board. He

argues that boutique agencies, small technology shops, the advent of the

Internet and many new people have all played a part in the declining


’There are a lot of adjustments being made,’ Elias says.

Another reason is a fear amongst corporations and corporate clients

about possible lawsuits from investors, shareholders, the government and


The release is a defensive weapon. ’It’s a litigious world so press

releases are written very carefully for reasons of protection,’ says

Stuart Pearlman, practice director for Phase Two Strategies, a San

Francisco and New York agency. ’But, unfortunately, if the release is a

perfect statement of what the company wants to say but not a compelling

news story, it won’t be used.’

All too often, PR people use a shotgun approach to distribute releases,

aiming it at media recipients who couldn’t care less. The theory is that

if you throw out enough releases to enough people, somewhere the

information will find a home, particularly since there are so many media

outlets needing to find material to fill their pages or airtime. The

reality, however, is that these scattergun tactics especially annoy

reporters and editors because it denotes ’lazy.’ Says Kendall Hamilton,

television writer for Newsweek, ’Practically all the releases I get do

not apply to me or what I do. I get a lot of ridiculous things - stuff

on baseball, bobbing dolls, though I have never written on new products

- and lots of stuff just randomly sent to me.’

Newsday’s Colford says, ’I love the people who call me at the paper and

ask, ’What are you interested in?’ I tell them, ’Spend 50 cents and find


Another common gripe - particularly alluded to by old school PR pros, is

the fact that there are fewer media pros and more university graduates

with PR or communications degrees entering the field. This is leading to

less emphasis on clear, succinct writing and more on communicating

carefully controlled or contrived messages. ’We have been looking for a

really good financial writer who can put that stuff into decent English,

but they are very hard to find,’ complains agency owner Richard


But PR people are responsible for what appears in releases, he says,

and, if necessary, they have to force company clients to put the release

into English, ’even though the tendency for PR firms is to always ’make

nice’ with the client.’

On that score, agency relations with clients and relations for internal

PR people with their senior bosses are growing more complex all the


This is turning the press release into a football kicked around by


American companies live in fishbowls nowadays and the press release is

looked on as a sort of escape hatch. Result: it just isn’t what it is

supposed to be - a message in words and structure that the media

understands and needs. And What used to be a direct entree to the news

reporter is now wearing a whole wardrobe of hats.

From the corporate standpoint, it’s not hard to see how that


Eric Kraus, the Gillette Company’s VP for corporate communications,

says, ’The whole media landscape has changed so much in the last few


The Internet is widely open to interpretation by consumers of all kinds,

and you can reach hundreds of outlets at the same time. This means

tremendous instant exposure. But you also have to make sure that all the

various departments in the company are conveying the exact, same message

to all those outlets. Consistency becomes very important.’

Media people see it otherwise. ’Press releases are more manipulative

than informative,’ says Time’s Hamilton.

Symptomatic of this conversion of the release into a corporate document

is companies’ growing tendency to transfer the PR function over to

investor relations executives, human resources types or attorneys

in-house or outside.

Veteran New York agency operator Warren Cavior believes the degradation

of the press release comes in great part from the shift of the PR

function to non-PR pros.

’A press release drafted by a lawyer is like a camel,’ he says. ’A horse

created by a committee. It may pass SEC scrutiny but it will never see

print, because it is totally insensitive to media needs.’

But, just a moment, one is tempted to ask, aren’t there generally

acceptable standards for releases that everyone knows must be adhered


Well, no. Some appear to bear no relation to the basic tenets - real

information and clarity. ’I read the boilerplate of a release issued by

a hi-tech agency,’ says Thom Weidlich, managing editor of Direct

Magazine, ’and I honestly didn’t know what its client actually did. The

way releases are written appears to cater not for the end-user - the

journalist - and certainly not for the consumer, but for the


Many an agency or corporate PR office has its own rules, based on the

Associated Press or other respected media style books.

H&K goes further. Elias says the agency follows a ’3 C’s’ policy for

releases - they must be ’creative, clear, concise.’ And to ’police’ it,

he adds, each core division head looks over the press material to see

that it conforms to those 3-C’s.

Good ol’ inverted pyramid

Some corporations insist that they do have strong rules. ’We keep to

very high standards,’ says Gillette’s Kraus. ’We follow the time-honored

practice of the inverted pyramid - the most significant news at the top

followed by information that is important to the media.’

Brian McGlynn of Pfizer says, ’Our senior executives hold us to a high

standard of accuracy and literacy. There has to be a fair balance in our

product releases, for example. We write about the product’s virtues and

also about its side-effects. In pharmaceuticals, there has to be a high

standard of disclosure that also accounts for regulatory


So, what’s the solution? Journalists and PR pros suggest: more

face-to-face meetings between PR and media people; improved research of

what media are using and need; less involvement in the release’s

preparation by non-PR types in client companies; and better writing, of

course. Make sure releases are in simple, understandable English and

avoid jargon.

Media lists maintained by PR people need constant updating, adds Jerry

Shriver of USA Today. ’I’ve been working in New York for three years but

20% of all my releases are still sent to my old Washington address.’

It’s all in the writing

’Most important is better training in writing,’ asserts Richard Stern of

Stern & Company. ’But as long as there are a lot of companies that don’t

demand good writing, most PR agencies won’t worry about it - they


’My most important suggestion is to make sure there’s ’new’ in the

’news,’’ says Elias of H&K. And Michael Freedman, the CBS radio news

chief, says, ’Clients have to be educated as to what works in a release

rather than what’s pretty. After all, what’s the purpose of a press

release anyway but to disseminate news? Why are so many people

forgetting that?’

Some tips to help the PR pro’s from normally hard-nosed reporters: If

you hand address or type out the journalist’s name, the chances that he

or she will open the envelope are much greater than if the recipient’s

name appears on an address tab. ’It’s like when you’re home,’ says one

reporter. ’You can tell right away what’s junk mail and what isn’t.’

And if you really can’t get around your client’s insistence on a

’corporate document’ full of jargon, one solution that PR pros now

silently encourage is a short, personal e-mail to accompany the release,

explaining, in simple language, what the story is - assuming of course,

there is one.


Media: USA Today

Name: Jerry Shriver

Job: Food and travel writer

’Close to 75 releases come to me every day. About 1% are useful. Very

few relate to me. A lot pertain to single restaurants or single chefs,

but I always do trend stories. I don’t do promotional stories. I get a

lot on calendar listings and local festivals, which I never write


There’s a handful of publicists with whom I’ve developed good

relationships because they know not to come after me unless it’s with

good stuff and that’s no more than twice a year. Media lists need to be

constantly updated. I’ve been working in New York for three years but

20% of all my releases are still sent to my old Washington address.’

Media: CBS Radio Network

Name: Michael Freedman

Job: General manager

’In our New York office, we get about 50 releases daily and about the

same amount in our Washington bureau.We throw out about 50% and we might

put aside 50% for future reference or background. The quality is all

over the map. But the volume of releases is very difficult to


Some helpful methodologies: if an important release is coming, post us

in advance. If you call, don’t be reluctant to identify yourself - a lot

of people don’t. If you do call for any reason, it’s courteous to ask

first, ’Is this a good time to talk to you?’ Very few people do


And, finally, clients have to be educated as to what works in a release

rather than what’s pretty.’

Media: Time

Name: Anita Hamilton

Job: Associate editor for technology

’Every day I get about 15 to 20 releases. As much as 90% is neither

informative or useful to me. PR people do not think like editors, just

what they themselves are interested in. I want good, clear information

that I can use. Focus more on the facts, less on the elaboration. Don’t

try to hide the facts. But releases are more manipulative than

informative. It seems as if it’s always been that way.’

Media: Newsday

Name: Paul Colford

Job: Publishing columnist

’I receive about 30 releases a day but it could be 100. Some send me two

and three copies of the same release. Their pertinence and importance

are very low and my reaction is like so-so at about 80 % of them. I love

the people who call me at the paper and say, ’Hi, I’m the new PR man at

Publication X. What are you interested in?’ I tell them, ’Spend 50 cents

and find out.’ Some releases are so inconsequential as to be funny. The

senders need to study the media to target better. If employers would

hold back paychecks to those PR people who don’t find out what I do,

things would change quickly.’

Media: Fortune

Name: Richard Behar

Job: Senior writer, investigations

’I get about a dozen releases a day but none are any good. The biggest

problems are that they aren’t newsworthy and don’t pertain to what I


PR people don’t seem to know how to search out anomalies that will

interest reporters and readers. What we want are the truly fresh and

different stories. But that doesn’t seem to get across. You get the

sense that we are just on a great, big list. PR companies really need to

spend time understanding who they are sending releases to, not doing it


They should try to think like reporters, too. The best PR people don’t

waste your or their time because they’ve taken the trouble to know what

you want.’

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