If a brand can build its own audience on its own digital channels, one could argue it might not need a press release or even a journalist, writes Chris Hogg.
By Chris Hogg
If a press release were to fall in the forest, would anyone hear it? That’s a question I’ve asked publicly for many years, and I’ve long believed social media would be a significantly disruptive force to public relations and press releases.
When I was getting pitches as a journalist, the volume of garbage-filled press releases was so high that I created an email filter for anything that included the words “for immediate release.” It put all press releases into a folder, and I then tested how often I needed to refer to the folder for story tips. The result: rarely, and then eventually never.
Am I typical? I think it depends on the industry, but I believe that the volume of press releases issued today is largely a waste of money. I also think that belief is becoming more widely held.
Instead, why not consider targeting journalists in a social media context: If a journalist were to get @mentioned on Twitter, for example, would it get noticed? Or perhaps the brand seeking attention could just create its own content and distribute that content via the web and social media. What happens to the value of a press release then? If you were a company, where would you spend your money?
Certainly, I have a bias; I am an entrepreneur in the social media and content marketing space. But it's clear to me why I wouldn’t spend my money on a press release if content marketing or social are powerful options. And I wouldn’t have chosen to work in content and social media marketing if didn’t strongly believe it was going to be disruptive.
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Who still uses press releases?
When I asked journalists from a sampling of Canadian and American news organizations how, and if, they use press releases in their newsrooms, the answers were interesting. For the most part, digital publications that only lived online rarely—if ever—cited press releases as the source of information for a story.
“Ninety-nine per cent of all press releases never even get past the email inbox. Most never get read,” said Markham Nolan, managing editor of Vocativ, a New York-based news organization that boasts a staff of 50 journalists and analysts. According to its website, its journalists are trained to uncover information buried deep in the web. The company uses “web analysis as a viable model for story development,” reports Fast Company, and the number of sources it uses for story leads is extensive.
Given how important data sources are to Vocativ, I found it interesting to hear what managing editor Nolan thought of press releases: “If a company is relying on sending a press release, especially an embargoed one, they're an embarrassing anachronism,” he said. “There are myriad direct channels open to them via social which are all far more appealing to the recipient.”
By comparison, in my interviews with journalists who cover a business beat or breaking news, press releases seem to be more important.
Rita Trichur, former telecom reporter for the Globe and Mail’s Report on Business and now Wall Street Journal Canada banking reporter, said she uses press releases for writing early web hits and will add in her own reporting when filing for print the next day.
Out of everyone I spoke to, business and political reporters were among those who most often cited press releases as a source of valuable, breaking news and information. But that’s changing, and social media channels have become a place where news can break.
Andrew Lundy, acting editor-in-chief at The Canadian Press (CP), said the Harper government announcing its cabinet shuffle exclusively on Twitter is one such example. Lundy said press releases continue to be used as one piece of a puzzle at CP, usually to provide a tip about something, a contact, a possible angle or other facet to a story. But if the press release were to disappear tomorrow, Lundy said CP would still know what’s going on via established contacts and now increasingly with social media. Lundy said reporters might have to work a bit harder, but the business would still function.
“It’s pretty rare that anything important that's in a news release isn't pushed in some way on social media, particularly in the corporate world,” said Lundy. “Press releases play a limited role, but social media is erasing their importance.”
Not everyone agrees, especially those who work in public relations (PR).
“The press release absolutely has a place in today’s marketing world,” wrote Michelle Garrett, a PR consultant in Columbus, OH, on her blog. “Though press releases are far from dead, it is safe to say that the purpose of the press release has evolved. It used to be primarily for reporters. Now, one of the biggest benefits is SEO.”
The cost of press releases
In evaluating the effectiveness of a press release, and public relations in general, it’s important to look at how much money is being spent.
As Ira Basen reported recently, 2011 Statistics Canada data shows there are now 4.1 PR professionals for every journalist in Canada. In Alberta, as an example, the government spends $21 million each year in salaries for its 214 communications staff. That’s an average salary of more than $98,000 per person. That is just one province, in one industry.
The 2011 Statistics Canada data shows there were 54,605 people who identified themselves as PR and communications professionals. If each of those people made $30,000 a year in salaries, that’s $1.6 billion being spent in employee compensation. If everyone got paid the $98,000 Alberta average, it would total $5.3 billion in salaries on PR.
That is a lot of money to spend to get the attention of the 13,280 journalists cited in the 2011 Statistics Canada data. Of course, not every PR professional does media relations, but it gives you a sense of the scale.
Next, factor in that three of the biggest press release distribution companies—PR Newswire, BusinessWire and Marketwired—sent out approximately 642,000 press releases in 2013, according to Lou Hoffman, CEO of global communications consultancy the Hoffman Agency. That means 1,759 press releases hit the wires each day from just these three sources.
"Too much of a good thing becomes a bad thing," Hoffman wrote in a recent post on his website. "Put a half-gallon of rocky road ice cream in front of Fat Albert, and even he’ll turn away before he hits bottom."
While the exact time and cost spent writing press releases can be debated, Hoffman’s exercise of quantifying the spend is worthwhile: If each press release takes about 10 hours to complete at a cost of $175 per hour, that translates into $3 million per day to support the 1,759 releases that go out.
That is nearly $1.1 billion in cost just to write press releases annually—and the cost skyrockets when you include the cost of distribution.
So the 2011 Statistics Canada data shows there are more PR professionals today than at any point in the past 20 years, they are talking to a group of journalists four times smaller than their base and they’re spending millions of dollars per day to issue press releases that might be used less frequently by journalists.
Is that a good use of a budget?
Content marketing is here to stay
Content marketing. Branded content. Native advertising. Call it what you will, but as brands start to leverage content marketing and social media, one of the clear trends is that brands can now directly build their own audiences.
One brand that is publicly talking about the shift away from issuing press releases is Coca-Cola. By 2015, Coke says the press release will be killed off entirely and replaced by its own branded content website. Ashley Brown, digital communications and social media lead for Coke, told Ragan.com, "I'm on a mission. What I want to do is kill the press release. We can't talk about what Coke wants to talk about. We have to talk about what people want to talk about."
Coke has made a massive investment in its own content creation, hiring a team of people with journalism backgrounds and creating content daily. Instead of press release boilerplate padded by tin can quotes, hyperbole and jargon, Coke challenged its teams to create high-quality content such as videos that people would really want to share. The company has even gone so far as to say it will produce unique media for each platform rather than publishing the same content across devices and platforms. And from an investment standpoint, the $1 billion the company expects to save in productivity improvements will largely be reinvested in marketing, the company said.
In the case of Coke, and in the case of other brands who are turning into publishers, it’s not as much about branded content killing press releases as much as it is about branded content flourishing without both public relations and media. After all, if a brand can build its own audience on its own digital channels, one could argue it might not need a press release or even a journalist.
As Adam Kleinberg, CEO of marketing firm Traction, pointed out, “This approach to content marketing has been very successful for other brands. American Express OPEN Forum has become a very legitimate small business publication. The content is 100 percent great stuff you might actually want to read.”
Add in social as a distribution layer, and one has to ask what happens when Nike.com can attract more tweets per month that drive to its website than the Toronto Star or The Globe and Mail? Do companies even need PR at that point?
The changing tides
Digital media is a crowded, noisy space. Journalists have to pay attention to more sources, and brands have to hone their message to break through the clutter.
Is a press release the most effective way to do that? I don’t think so.
In the age of a press release, what happens when LinkedIn opens its publishing platform to all 277 million people using the service? There will be myriad sources to quote directly and the boilerplate in a press release just isn’t going to cut it.
In the age of a press release, what happens when Twitter lets brands talk directly to anyone, in real-time, without the filter of the media or without having to pitch a journalist? Which is more accessible, a press release or a Twitter feed?
And finally, in the age of a press release, what happens when brands all launch custom content channels, discoverable by a Google search and supported by a social distribution network? More brands now have a content marketing budget than ever before, and 40 per cent say content marketing is a priority. Will a press release still cut it?
Sure, content marketing and social media will not kill press releases in every industry. Not yet at least. And there will still be a place for breaking news, political and business press releases. But for every other company seeking attention, I recommend a tactic that won’t slot you into a filter that puts your corporate message into email purgatory.
Chris Hogg is vice-president of content and coverage for /newsrooms, a network dedicated to providing continuous content marketing and social media coverage for brands.
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