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Ah the Press Release, a PR consultants dream and so often a journalist’s nightmare.

When press releases were first invented they were a hit with journalists. Folk lore – and Wikipedia – tells us that the first press release was created by Ivy Lee, a gentleman who worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1906, when a major train accident happened on Atlantic City railways and killed over 50 people.

Instead of waiting for Chinese whispers to contort the real happenings of the incident, Ivy wrote what was to become known as a press release, explaining exactly what had occurred, what caused the accident and how Pennsylvania Railroad was dealing with the crisis, and he sent it to the media.

Yes, the man not only invented the modern day press release, but he is also the Godfather of crisis communications. Apparently, the New York Times was so enamored with this memo that they published it verbatim.

Imagine that these days, a reputable and global media leader publishing a press release word for word? There are two major reasons no self-respecting editor or journalist would put their byline to a release and publish it verbatim in 2016.

Number one: Many journalists have lost jobs in recent years and there are any number of journos who would be willing to put in the work to substantiate, clarify, research and write quality, newsworthy content. Despite the desperate demand for content to feed the ever-hungry beast that is online media, good journos will always prefer to create original stories and if you’re not willing to put in the effort, there are others snapping at your heels.

Number two and more to the point: most press releases are long, meandering, self-interested diatribes completely lacking in substance or newsworthy content.

Press releases have almost become a tick-the-box KPI exercise. Gone are the days when people like Ivy Lee respond to crises with genuinely interesting content in a release, or write about something newsworthy, or using a press release to actually do what it is intended for: release news.

Press releases are not an excuse for companies or Public Relations agencies to get lazy and construct a bunch of rubbish just to tick a monthly KPI box.

Just because you write it and send it to the media, doesn’t mean your press release will achieve anything. In fact, by being lazy and writing to a KPI you are more likely to do damage to your future chances of getting traction with the media.

Instead a press release should be written only when you have something worthy to say.

So, how can you be more like Ivy Lee and get some media traction from a press release?

1. Be strategic with which media you are sending which stories to. Whether you are writing a release that is responding to a company crisis, or a press release on tips for snagging a Valentine based on expert advice from a dating guru, you must always consider which media outlets your story is relevant for. Do some research – does the media you’re targeting publish other stories like yours? Do they publish stories that include real perspectives from every day people or do they only publish stories with insight from the top experts in a field? If you’re not offering what they need, why would they respond to your release? And while we are on that note, don’t blast off an email press release with all your media contacts copied in, blind CC them for goodness sake. Or better yet, write a personal email to one journalist only, no ‘Dear Media’ catch-all.
2. Unless you’ve got something good to say, don’t say it at all. How newsworthy is your press release? Would you want to read about it in your local paper or hear about it on your favourite radio station? Or are you struggling to write a 300 word press release on it because there is really nothing to say? A press release, just like a news story, needs to be newsworthy in some regard. Does it link to an upcoming calendar event like Easter? Is it news that is going to knock the socks of particular media like a new iPhone with analogue buttons being released? Is it about how people who live in the bush can protect themselves from a ravaging bush fire season? Get your story straight and make sure it is newsworthy.
3. Include the contact details of the people you are quoting or referring to. Don’t make it hard for journos to contact the good people. They don’t want to have to make four different phone calls to find the person who is quoted in your story. Unless you have a mega celebrity who needs protection, include the phone and email contacts for the big wigs in your story, not a PR agent. This just serves to add unnecessary time delays to a journo’s day and will get them offside immediately.
4. Use the right channels to get your release out there. Our best research can’t find how Ivy Lee got press releases to the media exactly – maybe it was a homing pigeon, maybe it was a telegram. There was no newswire yet and Twitter was a good century away so safe to say it was most likely some slow-mo form of communication. But that’s beside the point. Don’t just rely on email to get your press release to your target media. There are myriad options to contacting journos these days, so use Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and the good old fashioned TELEPHONE to your advantage.

In short, if you’re going to use a press release, hark back to the good old days make sure it’s of Ivy Lee’s ilk, not box-ticker that has nothing valuable in it at all.

Emily Morgan is the Media Engagement Manager at Media Stable and former journalist.

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