The origins of the press release are unclear, but in the not too distant past, this communication tool was called a “News Release.” And its sole purpose was to provide the press with information likely to be of interest to the public; containing what journalists still call “news value.”
Prior to popularization of fax machines in the 1980s, news releases were delivered by human messengers to major wire services such as AP, UPI and Dow Jones, which in turn communicated that news to their subscribing media outlets over a broadtape machine – much like a financial ticker tape, but using a much wider roll of paper. For non-daily news sources such as magazines, news releases were often sent through the US Mail. Regardless of how they were delivered, news releases served an important role in mass communication.
But the news release has lost its franchise as a communication tool, for two reasons:
- Thanks to technology, news releases became an anachronism. Online news portals and email killed the underlying functionality of paper releases as a news dissemination tool. The internet delivered news faster, and this was a good thing.
- Thanks to the PR profession, news releases (aptly re-named press releases) became platforms to deliver content with little or no news value, and largely of no practical value or interest to the press. Flacks began using the press release as a marketing and propaganda tool, and this was a bad thing.
Over the past two decades, the sustained volume of press release abuse by PR practitioners – driven in large measure by CEOs (and clients) who fail to understand that journalists are not ad hoc members of their company’s Communications Department – has greatly diminished the stature of the public relations profession in the eyes of journalists, and has also reduced the ability of PR pros to leverage the media as a valuable means of securing objective, third-party exposure and validation for their company, product or cause.
As the number of journalists who post “Do not send press releases or pitch story ideas to me” on their Cision or Vocus profiles increases every year, the PR profession will eventually lose one of its most fundamental roles: to discover or create content that has bona fide news value, and to properly package and present that information to media sources.
If journalists find no practical need for flacks, organizations will likely follow their lead. For public companies, dissemination of financial results and material events will be handled by their legal department. Because press releases are now considered sales collateral by their target audiences, “media relations” for all companies will be managed by the marketing department. Public Relations, as a profession and a function, will simply cease to exist.
Twitter, blogs and other social media-based “pull” tools may eventually replace the press release. But unlike social media, press releases have been pushed at journalists, filling their inboxes, wasting their time, and reinforcing the media’s perception of PR as a self-serving and often ignorant generator of meaningless noise.
It may be too late to repair the self-inflicted damage done to the PR profession by years of press release abuse. Morphing from a Public Relations professional into a Social Media professional may buy some additional career tenure for young communications practitioners, and hopefully they’ll learn from the lessons of PR’s suicide: that whether it’s tweeted, posted or contained in a press release, news and information lacking intrinsic value will always reflect poorly on its source. And over time, it will make you irrelevant.