Contributed By: Buzz Walker
Managing Partner, Cognitive Impact
Many see the business press release as an artifact of a pre-internet and social media world that should be on the junk heap of business tools of the past along with the typewriter, corded phone, and pager. Properly used in the arsenal of a company’s marketing communications strategy, the press release can help build awareness and preference and inform the potential and existing customer base. As a business leader who’s experienced several decades of industry change and has been a part of driving the global digital transformation at HP and several start-ups, I have seen the fundamental shift from the news conference and press release driving marketing communications, to now where the press release is an often misused tool issued because it’s always been done or completely ignored. Similar to a phone call not being the primary means of communication any more, when used properly, the press release is still a critical and effective means of clear communication, especially when enhanced with digital capabilities. But when used improperly, it will be ignored or denied with a swipe.
Disruption and Transformation
The most important aspect of a modern press release is its ability to control the narrative on the company’s brand message. To understand how to use it effectively, some perspective is useful.
The internet has disrupted every industry requiring companies to change and transform or risk extinction. Press releases can be traced to well over 100 years ago. Originally used to communicate news of local, national, and political interest, they were readily adopted by corporations. A press conference with a question and answer exchange accompanied most press releases.
Press releases also became a staple of trade shows to communicate new product releases. In memes Bill Gates is alleged to have said that if he had one dollar left in his marketing budget he would spend it on PR. Most companies followed this advice and would gear their product development cycles and withhold new product information to announce it at their biggest trade show. They knew all their important customers would be in attendance and a world-wide press audience would shuttle from conference room to conference room to hear announcements and compare rivals’ new offerings. The press room was filled with mountains of press kits that where thick with printed press releases and accompanying collateral. Trade shows like Comdex and CeBit where the annual A-list parties (more like a 5-day rave but those are stories for a different day) that the who’s who of the industry attended and spoke during the conference. They drew global attendance from hundreds of thousands of customers and anyone who could get a press pass.
The internet and world financial and political events have disrupted how companies use press events and press releases along with most trade shows. With the ability to communicate directly and instantly to a target audience, the original reason for their existence has less relevance. Customers don’t need to travel to a trade show to see the latest and greatest from multiple manufactures and pick up their data sheets. The internet has also disrupted the role of published newsprint and magazines and the advertising that funded them. The lack of funding has shuttered thousands of publications and has laid-off an army of journalists. The few remaining salaried journalists are inundated in a mountain of information and those that were without jobs started freelance writing and became the backbone of the blogging and paid influencers world.
There was a style to writing a press release that enabled a journalist to build a story quickly using release content and arranged interviews with customers and analysts. Today, journalists rarely use a press release as the basis of an article except from the top-tier companies in each industry. The SEC and lawyers for dissident shareholders constantly scrutinize public companies. Press releases are used to stay compliant with the proper dissemination of material information and as a result, say very little. Disclaimers and safe harbor information can be longer than the released content.
News and trade media outlets have adapted and now have automated systems that cull through the digitally distributed press releases and republish the first paragraph or entire release on a section of their website. The news scrolls to the back page and off the website based on the release time. Rarely does a human interact with the release and the inundated journalists ignore the daily release digest and mass distributed emails. They focus on creating original content and editorial on industry trends and not what any one company is announcing publicly.
Controlling the Narrative
So why bother with a press release at all? As in any disruption, change leads to opportunity and we can use this history to tell us how to cost effectively make use of a press release. The first place to focus is on the changed role of the journalist. There are rarely “reporters” on staff anymore to write articles based on a press release. Since the press release will be “printed” in its entirety and live in the internet world on a server “forever” the press release is now an important content document like a data sheet, white paper, or eBook.
While a press release is still used to announce news, its relevance to the company is less about news in the moment and more about reinforcing brand, being another customer touch point, and supporting the sales cycle. This dictates that the modern press release is written by the issuing company in the style of a finished news article. It’s now a document that controls how the news and information is described in a customer context and properly supportive of the company’s brand. It should include information from customers and analysts that support both the news and the brand.
To be clear for the few people who don’t know or SEO scammers that still claim otherwise, search engines led by Google, place no weight on press releases in their site ranking algorithms. When it did matter, the internet was flooded with useless content packed with keywords and cheaply distributed in spam-like fashion to artificially create back links and boost a site to the top of a search list.
While the SEO value of a press release today is zero, its distribution of useful content to multiple websites and persistence on web servers increase the company and its brand awareness which in turn should reduce the cost of paid SEM programs. It’s also been shown that customers that go to a company’s website from a press release stay longer and are engaged with more pages on the site than if they came from another search source. The release itself becomes a billboard of information that can be found later by a potential customer searching for a product or service. Reinforcing what was stated above, this longevity on the internet dictates that a press release should be written in the style of an article that has relevance beyond the news date.
The single most important consideration for a company’s press release strategy is consistency. Keeping a steady drum beat of information emanating from an organization represents the heartbeat of the company to the industry. While they may not write about a company based on a single press release, journalist that have been around for a while have a sense of the health of a company from the consistency and quality of content they are seeing in the press releases sent to their inbox. They are unlikely to write a story based on the release alone, but a well written release that is of interest to their audience will open the door to a PR rep pitching a compelling story angle that includes the company and/or product.
Frequency is not as important as consistency and should match the company’s size and ability to publish actual news that is relevant to the target audience. A very large company may issue press releases weekly. A good pace for most companies is one to two a month with smaller companies sending out news once a quarter to every other month. One or two press releases a year and a company won’t be relevant to industry watchers, analysts, and influencers. Each company establishes the pace of their drum beat and from there should keep it steady, except when periodically increasing the pace around a special event before settling back in to a consistent rhythm. If your communications team has not planned a release schedule for the year, they should get started immediately.
Trade Show Releases
Around a major trade show is a great time to increase the pace of press releases. If you have any news worthy announcement going out around a trade show, a good number of releases is four – issue two before the trade show, one during, and then one after. The content of each of those releases will vary depending on the company and what is newsworthy at the trade show. Roughly, the first release makes sure the audience knows you’ll be at the show and tell or tease announcements that are coming. The second release before the show can invite attendees to the booth for an event, announce a customer success story that will be featured, or announce an executive presentation and its highlights. The third release issued during the first day of the show includes any major announcements related to the company and that has been previewed with the press. The post show release covers the success at the show with awards, new customers, or other records or accomplishments from the show.
The trade show press release series must be supported by the company’s social media and email marketing campaigns, leverage the trade show social media feed, and ideally be enhanced by show specific advertising to better attract attendees. This also has the advantage of keeping those that don’t attend informed and connected to the company’s presence at and investment in the trade show.
What’s Not Changed
The headline and first sentence are still the most important words in a press release, even more so now with shorter attention spans and more digital distraction. This is the few seconds where the reader decides to continue, file for later, or delete.
To get earned media coverage still requires building a relationship with each journalist. Their reputation is on the line with their audience and publisher and they cannot appear to have their reporting or opinion controlled by advertisers. They need to deliver more than can be found in a tweet, blog, or other fan-based social media post. Building that relationship is about understanding their audience, the market trends they cover, and the style of articles they write. Being included on a mass email will get no attention. A poorly written release will get future emails permanently sent to the junk mail folder.
A personal email that references an earlier article they wrote or the publication’s editorial calendar and how the content provides a fresh perspective they may want to include, may get some attention if it is followed-up with a phone call or private message. Seeing the press releases on a consistent basis, with the follow-up personal touch is the way to open the door to a conversation with the journalist. However, the conversation is not about the company’s new widget or recent success. Find a new angle or way to view the market so the journalist can build an article that will be relevant and allow them to teach a new perspective or way to think to their audience.
To be realistic, this process is unlikely to yield earned media results at a trade show unless you are a big advertiser, market leader, or are truly disrupting the market. Journalists have a schedule dictated by a publisher with little wiggle room and everyone claims to be disrupting the market. If you have the budget, this is where advertising is effective in and around the show not only to attract customers to the booth but demonstrates industry commitment to journalists and, most importantly, their publishers. Develop a plan that gets the visibility you need utilizing your own marketing campaigns and have the press releases and outreach to journalist support the longer-term vision of earning the media’s time and attention for your company.
Press Releases Work
Press releases are still relevant and build brand, awareness, and preference when part of a strategic plan that understand the new role it plays in a modern marketing communications program.
A four press release tactical plan is an excellent way to support and increase ROI in the time, money, and resources spent on a trade show.
They are a lasting billboard alive on the internet and your website bringing traffic that spends more time and explores your company longer.
A steady drum beat of releases demonstrates continued momentum to current customers and those in the pipeline and keeps a company relevant to industry journalists and analysts.
When enhanced with multi-media, supported by a social media and email marketing campaign, and used to build relationships with journalists, SEM is enhanced, earn media increases, and your customer outreach is well supported.
Press releases are no longer written for journalist consumption but written to tell a brand story to your target market and customers. If you don’t have a communication strategy that includes a press release calendar and supporting strategy, get help. There are many agencies skilled in building relationships, pitching story lines, and creating content that is relevant to your brand and your target market. If you have a top quality product or service and you’re ready to rise above your competition, I’m open to having a further conversation about how you can enhance your marketing communications to realize your plans. I can be reached at buzz (at) cognitiveimpact (dot) com.