Here's the PR equivalent of your grandpa's story about walking five miles to school in three-foot snow drifts, uphill both ways... Back in the day, when distribution hinged on fax machines and tracking coverage meant cutting articles out of actual magazines and taping them into physical binders, the press release was a pretty powerful tool. It gave your intermediary audience (reporters) the breaking news and basic information it needed to spread your story to your primary audience (investors, customers, prospects, potential employees, partners, and others). The best way to reach all of those important groups was by informing the editorial gatekeepers, and one of the best ways to inform them was via the press release.
Lots of things have changed since PR pros had to walk uphill both ways to the fax machine. Companies now have many ways to reach their primary audiences: blogs, social media, email newsletters, webinars, and more. PR and marketing leaders know that their job titles today should include "publisher," since they now own multiple platforms from which they can communicate directly with key constituencies.
Google says 'NO!' to optimized press release links
There was a time when all of those publishing platforms threatened the viability of the press release. For years, marketers wondered whether the former workhorse of the public relations industry would go the way of paper press clippings.
But the release rallied, in part because it delivered search engine optimization (SEO) value. All of those optimized links—connecting companies to the keywords they valued most—were like extra votes across the Internet. Press releases helped companies get found online.
Not so much, anymore. Google recently labeled the optimized links in press releases as "link schemes," meaning that the anchor text in your news announcements will no longer help your SEO (according to Google), and excessive links could seriously hurt your SEO efforts. The move is punishing for content mills that churn out releases solely to create "unnatural" links. For those of us who write releases to distribute actual news, however, Google's move raises big questions.
Did Google just ring the death knell for press releases?
No, it did not. Here's why: Legitimate news announcements still serve as tools for market education, and they still contribute to online discoverability via social networks and other channels. But some companies need a wake-up call about what they can really accomplish with an isolated press release, especially at a time when media and content strategies demand deep, broad, high-quality storytelling.
A newsworthy, succinct press release that's free of clichés and buzzwords can help you deliver news to target audiences and lead them to additional information via Google-sanctioned hyperlinks (more on this later).
However, there are several things a press release cannot do, and some companies haven't yet gotten the message.
Alas, your press release cannot...
Get you coverage in influential outlets
Some reporters—perhaps those who also trudged uphill to the fax machine in the early days of their careers—like to have the clearly laid out information a press release offers. That doesn't mean that sending an announcement to those folks generates actual coverage. With email inboxes overflowing with news (and much of it not so newsworthy), editorial staffers can't devote hours to reading wordy releases and figuring out which ones might be worthy of their attention.
It's far more effective to create a tailored pitch that explains the news and why that particular reporter and her readers should care. Personalizing an email or picking up the phone requires more time and effort than simply distributing a press release, but the results are better.
Round up people to read it
The audience for the press release was once reporters and editors, but now, thanks to social media and corporate websites and blogs, the audience includes just about any group your company wants to reach. However, posting a release doesn't necessarily mean it will get read. Smart optimization and distribution are critical.
Did you distribute the release via established social media networks and include relevant hashtags? Did you put keywords in the headline and in any subheads? Did you follow Google's new rules about anchor text (including in press releases)? Did you include pictures or video, which make releases more shareable and more valuable to reporters and bloggers?
Businesses need to ask and answer all of these questions in order to drive traffic to their news.
Convey the story of your business all by itself
No matter how we glorify (or demonize) the past, putting out a press release has never constituted an effective media relations or content marketing strategy, and it certainly doesn't now. The news announcement remains a single tool in a growing toolbox of options PR and marketing pros can access to tell brand stories that further strategic business objectives.
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Communication is changing. Press releases—along with newer modes of outreach, such as e-books, infographics, and more—are tactical assets that work only as well as the more strategic, comprehensive PR and marketing programs of which they are a part.
The press release of yesteryear (and yesterday) is not dead, but it is different. Now a portal to a potentially deep supply of engaging and real-time content, the modern news announcement will no doubt continue to evolve as other communications tools change and mature.