We start with a paean to the humble press release.

The first press release was issued in 1906 by the Pennsylvania Railroad, under the direction of public relations expert Ivy Lee, to provide media with an on-the-ground account of facts about the 1906 Atlantic City train wreck. Since then, it has become a staple in marketing promotion, public affairs, and politics.

As we arrive at the 111th anniversary of the press release, it seems appropriate to examine this marketing tool and its optimal uses.

Ideally, a press release enables an organization to share the facts of a new development in a way that will have the most impact on its target audiences. If the content is newsworthy, the release can capture the attention of relevant media outlets, which might then reach out for more information to develop a story of their own. If it is particularly well-written, the release has the potential to be posted verbatim on one or more media outlets. (Such was the case on Oct. 30, 1906, when the New York Times printed the Pennsylvania Railroad press release word for word.)

In all cases, the press release allows the brand to carefully craft and control the message—accentuating the elements it wants, avoiding those that it doesn't—and establish a messaging foundation for other versions of the news, or suppositions, that might be shared subsequently.

However, the potential power of the press release is sometimes misunderstood by those who aren't studied PR practitioners. Many self-marketing entrepreneurs or others serving in some marketing function often believe—falsely—that writing and distributing a press release means guaranteed free company publicity and a third-party media endorsement. Others wrongly believe there's no such thing as "too much of a good thing" and so they document every move made by the company and send it along to the media.

Acting on those beliefs can be fraught with problems, so I would urge that companies consider a more strategic approach. If you are Google, Apple ,or McDonald's, these guidelines likely don't apply to you: If you ever decided to change your logo, the world would pay rapt attention.

For everyone else, though (including most global corporations), there are some best-practices regarding press releases as marketing tools.

First, What Not to Do

1. Don't send non-news—period

Consider how the press release (AKA news release) is regarded by the news media. You want the free press, but to get that you must give the press what it wants. (For simplicity's sake, we'll limit our example to print media, although the lesson also applies across broadcast and online news).

Your local newspaper or general-interest magazine wants to be known as the outlet that consistently publishes stories that provide useful information or stories that are, at a minimum, interesting to read. Its editor is looking for news angles that will be interesting or helpful to the publication's readership. Understanding that, look at your press release through a different lens: Your latest development matters to you, but where is the importance of the news to anyone else?

Upon receiving your release, the editor is likely to ask, "Why should I care, and why should my readers care?" Think about that question. If your news is self-serving, merely publicizing that your company or product is doing well, the audience that will care is likely to be quite small.

If you insist on sharing this "news" anyway, consider the downside. Other than being ignored, the announcement could serve to damage your relationship with the very press for which the release was written. You'll be perceived as un-strategic, un-newsworthy, and self-promotional; and the media will get in the habit of deleting all emails, including actual newsworthy future announcements, or kicking those emails over to the ad/sales department every time.

2. Don't badger the press

If you refuse to be ignored—calling or emailing repeatedly to find out why your non-story about your new office building didn't make the front page—you could develop an aggressively bad reputation for yourself that will reinforce the idea that ignoring you is a good plan. It could also lead the media to use its powerful platform to publish a rather unflattering account of you or your company. Cases of that are rare, but not unheard of.

What You Should Do

1. Post your releases on your website

Even if your news is not of interest to the media, there are benefits to sharing the announcement on your company's "In the News" page—to show visitors and prospective customers that you're active in your industry, recognized and knowledgeable.

Posting periodic releases on your site will demonstrate that you're hitting milestones, staying on top of industry trends, benefiting your community, etc. You also might have a social media strategy that requires content beyond industry analyses. Steering interested readers from your social channels to relevant pages on your site could bring multiple marketing benefits.

2. Refine your targets

Think about how you can get your news to customers or peers who are interested in your organization or industry. Consider smaller, more targeted publications with a concentration of those readers.

Are you a commercial real estate developer who just won a contract to build five new schools in your tri-county area? Instead of trying to get the attention of The Wall Street Journal, consider submitting your release to some building/construction trade publications; they might happily add it to next month's news briefs section or consider it deserving of its own feature story.

In addition to giving you a better shot at coverage, hitting that smaller, more targeted audience could make more sense for your business goals.

3. Consider alternative angles

The contract to build multiple schools is big news for your firm, so you feel it's worthy of attention, perhaps from your major metro daily newspaper. Though a real estate reporter there might pick it up, there's also a chance that the newspaper might not feel that enough readers would care. In that case, see whether there's a way to make your news more applicable to a general audience: Will these new schools appreciably change the lives of local families? Will they provide new jobs for the region? Brainstorm questions like these, do some research, and you might find a new angle that gives your announcement broader appeal (and placement).

Even if the final story is not fully devoted to your company or brand, it will make it into the paper, and you might even get a quote, which is likely more "ink" than you would've received otherwise.

Showing a timely link between your news and current events can also spark potential media interest. With the school construction contract, say there is current news about local, state, or federal funding cuts related to new schools. In such a landscape, your announcement might provide an interesting counterpoint, and some simple research on your part will yield a list of reporters who have specific interest in this topic.

* * *

For those without a clear understanding of how the press release is regarded by the news media, the learning curve can be steep, but following some basic guidelines can make a vast difference in improving media interest, potential placement, and marketing power.

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The Modern Press Release: Two Don'ts and Three Do's

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image of Jay Hickman

Jay Hickman is the director of public relations for MMI Agency, a full-service integrated agency in Houston.

LinkedIn: Jay Hickman