COMMSCAMP: Die Press Release! Die! Die! And six other things PR people need to know…

There was once a horror train crash that claimed the lives of 56 and changed communications forever.

In 1906, a de-railed train plunged into the icy waters close to Atlantic City railway stations. Within minutes thousands of onlookers lined the banks to witness the rescue attempts. Journalists were close behind.

As every PR student will tell you Ivy Lee of the West Jersey and Seashore Railroad Company persuaded his employers to issue a statement direct to the gathered hacks… and thus the press release was born.

But in 2013 that trusty war horse, the granddaddy of comms channels is no longer the only show in town.

Shaped for journalists often by ex-journalists it has intro, headline, quotes and notes to editors. It works best as a means of providing content for print. Cut, paste and stick it into other channels it works far less effectively. It’s like starting a telephone conversation: “Dear Sir, With reference to your letter dated June 10…” it’s the wrong language for the wrong platform.

That comms teams – can we call them Press Offices these days? – are so geared up for press releases and print has troubled me for some time. In a digital landscape where digital by default is the aim not just of newsrooms but any forward thinking organisation they appear as outdated as the idea of getting your football scores by waiting in the newsagent at Saturday tea time for the Pink football final to arrive.

All this worrying about press releases isn’t new. Former FT writer Tom Foremski wrote his seminal blog post ‘Die Press Release! Die! Die!’ in 2006. I only came across this a year or two ago but it captured perfectly an iconoclastic wish.

He wrote:

I’ve been telling the PR industry for some time now that things cannot go along as they are . . . business as usual while mainstream media goes to hell in a hand basket.

You can read the original here and I suggest strongly you do.

Now, I don’t agree with all of what is written. And yes, I think the press release still has a future. If a declining one and part of the mix rather than being the only ingredient of the mix.

At LGComms in Manchester I gave a presentation on this and six other things every press officer should know. Some of the points me or others have blogged about them. With commscamp imminent it’s high time I chucked it up onto the web for wider debate.

Six other things…

Every organisation needs a digital comms specialist – I’ve heard the theory that we should all be doing this stuff so we shouldn’t have people specialising in it. In practice, this is cobblers. To make this works every member of the team needs to be as keen and forward thinking as the keenest. Look around yours. That’s not quite true is it? Every team needs someone who is passionate about it. Whose job it is to hunt out new platforms, try them for size and then… share the sweets.

Share the sweets – Because it’s important that comms shouldn’t be the only people to be using social media. The best content comes from people in the field and at the coalface. Look at Walsall Council countryside officer Morgan Bowers, for example, and tell me that’s not brilliant, engaging and wonderful. Footnote: tell the measure-all comms people that this stuff is supposed to be conversation and they can get their tape measures out for when Morgan sells out her courses using Facebook and Twitter pretty much alone.

Marry the traditional with the digital – Don’t just do one channel. Or all. Do the ones that are likely to work. A press release about a street being evacuated is just silly. A web update and a tweet isn’t. Look at Gatwick Aiport. They tweet snow disruption and post children’s stories to Soundcloud so fractious parents can keep their offspring occupied. You can see what they do here.

Evaluation: Channel shift – It’s not the 100,000 people who read the press release that’s the measure. It’s the 150 who signed-up for smoke detectors as a result that’s the measurement. Even better is the £10k – or whatever the figure is – not spent on call-outs because the smoke detectors give better cover.

Be human – Sometimes comms people in their quest for evaluation forget that being human really works. Or as blogger Adrian Short says: ‘Speak Human.’

Innovate – Experiment, do things differently, see what works, look at what people are doing outside comms for ideas too. You’ll be surprised at what you’ll learn. Go to an event like commscamp. See what ideas are bouncing off people.

Lastly, a quote I love from 20-something PRO Jarrod Williams on what the new generation of comms people offer. You can read his post here: 

 “My generation of the Web 3.O PR will be a digitally native team with skills… yes there will be the specialists, but I’ll be the cost effective one, the one who will build your campaign, take the photos, make the videos, stick it on a web site, tweet about it and get your brand the press attention you want.

“The future is diverse, and the industry needs people who can adapt and change across all platforms, digital and otherwise.”

If that’s not a wake-up call to experienced comms people then for heaven’s sake what is?

The 1906 Atlantic City train crash.
The 1906 Atlantic City train crash. Pic: Wikipedia

Creative commons credit:

1906 train crash

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  1. Ah, the football pink, what memories! I used to be amazed that I could be at a football match at Meadow Lane, walk back into Nottingham to the bus station, and the football paper would be on sale with a report of the match in it. Mind you, I was once at a game that ended 3-2 with all 5 goals being scored in the last 5 minutes plus injury time. The match report in the paper described it as a boring stalemate, then there was a list of the scorers of the 5 goals at the end of the article.

  2. Interesting point of view. I definitely agree that the press release has to be just part of the mix, but I can’t see it dying anytime soon. The main thing keeping it alive is journalists who want you to prepare a digest, explanatory version of the story for them to use as a starting point – or often to just lift verbatim. Countless times, when I’m speaking to a journalist to sell in a story or to invite them to a briefing, the first question I’m asked is ‘do you have a press release?’. Our time and resource-poor colleagues in local media don’t have the time to research every story from scratch so they want you to give them that head start. More recently I’ve found that some newer, and in some cases younger, journalists just don’t know anything about the story and need someone to give them a way to hit the ground running.

  3. As a journalist we don’t want a press release either, often all we want is an answer and nine times out of ten I fail to be provided with an answer by comms officers who have no interest in the local press. That’s not an insult to me, it’s an insult to the 24,987 people who buy the paper and the 142,600 people who log on to the paper’s website.
    I go to council meetings and I know who the head of comms is at my local authority, but I’d put money on her not knowing who I am.
    To fail to understand one form of communication, I believe you fail to understand them all. The paper I work on Tweets stories and we journalists interact with others on Twitter and Facebook.
    That council misses out on sending their message to those who look via Twitter.

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