Death by Content: How Press Release Abuse Killed Public Relations

Self-serving Press Release Content Has Killed PR

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.

11 Comments

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11 responses to “Death by Content: How Press Release Abuse Killed Public Relations

  1. It’s certainly true that signal to noise ratio of PR material coming down the wire is far worse than it used to be. But what’s scary – at least where I live in New Zealand – is how much of the worthless junk is ‘processed’ and published by news outlets. While that practice continues, the trash will go on flowing.

  2. The proliferation of press releases is a form of content pollution — churning out endless documents with little news or value but plenty of key words.

  3. Pingback: How bad press releases are a public relations own goal

  4. Peter D

    Gordon,

    Good piece but it’s still a “News Release.” I had an old television news director who would ignore a “press release.” His argument, “press” was print. He only wanted “news releases.”

    • Peter, Thanks. Your story reminded me of my first boss…a crusty old PR guy who wouldn’t talk to cub reporters or anyone at industry newsletters. He claimed they weren’t worth his time. Unfortunately, he was in the business long enough to see those cub reporters and newsletter editors rise through journalism’s ranks to assume positions at major media outlets. His “selectivity” ended his own career sooner than he had planned.

  5. Glenn Boyet

    Peter: Amen to this. How many times have we heard that PR stands for Press Release. Too many organizations are so embedded in their thinking on this that the forward looking PR strategist who clearly recommends changing the entire way in which PR operates finds themselves quickly out the door. Like evolution we must adapt or die as a profession. I have cut down our press release reliance by 75% and the flack internal clients give the team on this, in spite of the education, sometimes makes one give in so that you can get on with the other workload that is often placed on PR.

    • Glen: The effort to educate people on this is so challenging that it’s often easier simply to pump out a worthless press release, so that they can hang it on their website like a hunting trophy. Too many people believe that a press release IS media coverage because you can see it posted online. And the distribution services like PRWeb and PRNewswire feed this fantasy, by reporting back to clients that “Your release has been picked up by 2,457 news sources,” which is not bona fide media coverage. Unfortunately, too many PR practitioners then go running back to senior management with this bogus information, to validate their activity and to keep their jobs.

  6. Glenn Boyet

    My bad. Should have mentioned Peter and Gordon. Apologies.

  7. Pingback: How bad press releases are a public relations own goal | Bill Bennett

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