When you sit down to write a press release, what audience are you writing for?
If you’re like most public relations people, chances are you think that’s a stupid question. It it’s a press release, it’s written for the press, right? Actually, that’s only half right. If you’re writing a press release today—at least, a press release that goes out over the newswires—it’s going to be read not only by the news media, but also by any stakeholder who has access to the Internet and sufficient interest in your company to do a search.
“Press releases are not just for journalists any more,” says John Williams, executive vice president of global markets for PR Newswire, one of the two leading wire services. “They’re for individual investors, for analysts, they’re for consumers, they’re for the general public. Press release are no longer just press releases, they’re a communications platform.”
Michael Lissauer, senior vice president of marketing at Business Wire, agrees. “It’s reaching an additional audience today. Press releases were always aimed at the media, which would interpret those releases, write what they wanted to write based on those releases, and that was what consumers ultimately saw. But with the advent of the Internet, the target audience can see press releases in their original form.”
Dot-com companies were the first to recognize that press releases could be used to communicate directly with important stakeholders. As stories distributed by PR Newswire and Business Wire found their way onto news sites such as Yahoo! and MSNBC and Bloomberg, many dot-com PR people started using press releases “in lieu of advertising,” says Lissauer. “The number of press releases increased because they were using them to reach the general public.”
There was widespread criticism of many dot-com companies—in the media and in PR circles—for putting out press releases when they had no news, press releases no respectable newspaper or magazine would ever pick up. But in a way, that criticism missed the point. By appearing on Business Wire or PR Newswire themselves, those press releases were being read by potential investors, by potential customers (and don’t forget employees). And since they were being picked up by financial and technology news websites, they were actually reaching an audience of millions even if they didn’t prompt a single call from a reporter.
The Internet has changed the nature of the press release. In the good old days, says Chris Clark, senior vice president of strategic services at Mainsail Interactive Services in San Francisco, “PR people would either mail or fax them to a reporter’s personal attention, or they would be distributed through newswires that could only be accessed by either accredited members of the journalistic profession or stockbrokers and other investment professionals willing to spend $1,200 a month on a terminal. Security was so tight, interns would be deployed to call a client’s competitors and request a press kit as part of a ‘research project.’
“The Internet just completely totally blew that paradigm into so many Mick Jagger solo albums. Today, instead of heralding a news event, the press release is the very last element in an announcement strategy. Thanks to the near-instantaneous reach of online newsfeeds carrying AP, Reuters and especially PRNewswire, everyone on the planet—reporters, readers, partners, customers, competitors, parents—can access a press release within seconds of its release to the press.”
“The Internet has created a new class of news consumers,” says Mike Sockol, who heads the interactive practice at Makovsky & Company. “They have moved beyond relying on the supposedly unbiased press and they have become their own assignment editors. They uncover information on their own and then make their own judgments about whether they believe the information to be accurate.”
Research conducted by PR Newswire at its website indicates more than 25 percent of those who read press releases online are shareholders of the issuing company, and 34 percent identify themselves as individual investors. About 13 percent identify themselves as business professionals, and almost 15 percent are ordinary consumers, looking to learn about the company, it products and services.
“The general public is the fastest growing segment of the market,” says Williams. “One of the consequences of the Internet age is that people are looking online for more information about the products and services they buy, and press releases provide information.”
But in addition to changing the audience for the press release, the Internet has also changed the power of the press release to communicate complicated information and to provide reporters with access to more detailed information. Press releases no longer need to be written to adhere to a structure as rigid as a haiku. They can contain hyperlinks to a wide range of resources—executive biographies, product specs, annual reports, even video of speeches or product demos—that give their readers as much information as they could possibly want.
Yet most press releases are still one-dimensional, two pages of double spaced text transported from paper to the Internet with no thought of how the new medium changes the way in which they can be used, the quantity and quality of information they can communicate.
The major newswire services are certainly thinking about ways in which to use press releases differently, as are the leading public relations agencies.
“Our goal is to make every release a smart release,” says Lissauer, using a term Business Wire employs for releases with some kind of interactivity. “But the reality is that today only one or two percent of the releases we distribute are smart releases.”
“No question, the vast majority of press releases are still flat and one dimensional,” says David Wickenden, head of the interactive practice at Fleishman-Hillard. “The most obvious reason is that the majority of end-users, reporters still work in the one-dimensional world where text and photos rule. Media relations people have to deliver information in the format that reporters find most useful, that is easiest, fastest and simplest for them to work with, and that is the most universal and accessible for the most number of people. Against those criteria, text trumps other formats like video email which some reporters can’t deal with.”
To be fair, press releases that really stand out from the crowd have always been in the minority, long before the Internet came along.
“Most are flat,” says Albert Durig, chairman of the Latin American technology practice at Burson-Marsteller. “Most are less than newsworthy. Most are not that interesting. All the more reason that the writing of a really great press release should be a highly valued art. Most releases are not being written by great writers because companies don’t get the value of great release writing until they see the impact. They think more about volume of releases than quality.
“The less than stellar impact the Internet has had on release writing has more to do with the slow change of a culture of release writing than it has to do with the Internet itself. Some things have changed quickly. For example, most reporters only receive releases via e-mail these days. No need to mail releases, or even fax releases. That’s progress. But there is much more that can be done.”
In some ways, everything has changed; in some ways, nothing has.
Says Clark, “Ye gods, the press release as we used to know it barely exists today. Sure, it still looks the same, especially when you go for that retro touch and actually print the text onto paper. And it still reads the same, especially if written in classic ‘pyramid’ style, in which the key message and proof points are gradually expanded from headline through boilerplate in a manner guaranteed to ensure than absolutely no one on the planet ever reads a single word after page two.
“But all other discernable qualities of the press release are hereby null and void. For one, the press never even bothers to read press releases in 2001, much less rely on them for news.  The media’s interest in the information contained in the press release drops to zero the nanosecond the release hits the wire. The news ain’t exactly new.”
Our review of Fortune 100 websites, published in last week’s edition of The Holmes Report, suggested that many public relations people are not using the Internet to even a fraction of its potential, but service companies in the news distribution business believe there is a demand among their clients for increasingly sophisticated products.
“We have asked our customers what they want to see, and there is definitely an appetite for some of these new features,” says Williams. “Like any other technology, there will be early adapters and there will be those who are more hesitant to change.”
In the public relations business, those resistant to change probably outnumber those who have a more progressive attitude. “I’m still baffled about why PR people seem to have such a hard time thinking in multidimensional terms about digital as well as traditional analog communications,” says Wickenden. “The ad and marketing people don’t seem to have been reluctant to jump into this new medium.”
Says Mike Spataro, head of the interactive practice at Weber Shandwick Worldwide, “I think the newswires have been trying help an industry that is not very sophisticated about technology.”
But techno-phobia is not the only issue.
“I think one of the problems is that PR people are under so much pressure to get the release out quickly, they don’t have time to think about broader issues,” says Lissauer.
Spataro agrees. “One of the issues is that public relations people have found it difficult to get the person quoted in the release to pick up the phone and read the quote into the phone. That’s really all they have to do, and then you have an audio clip that a lot of radio stations would be happy to use. But getting someone to take the time to do that can be a hurdle.”
For PR people to truly take advantage of the Internet, both the culture and the structure of PR departments may have to change.
“The Internet has changed what can be done with releases,” says Durig. “Immediate hot links to other sites and info, attachments of further info, photos, immediate response mechanisms, and more. However, these new possibilities require that PR departments also structure the way they do their work differently. For example, if a company is going to offer a great immediate response mechanism to its release, or even instant messaging for inquiries, it will have to have staff ready and available to manage these inquiries. Most PR departments are not set up that way yet.”
But late adoption of technology in PR departments is not the only problem. Some of those who have been on the cutting edge of technology suggest the media may not have the bandwidth to accept more technologically advanced product—or the inclination to accept multimedia content.
“Even if they’ve got high-end bandwidth, most reporters don’t have patience for rich media as a primary mode of receiving and digesting information anyway,” says Wickenden.
Clark expands on the theme: “There is nothing more boring to do with a computer than use it to watch what passes for programming on CNBC at 2 am, which is to say most corporate content, in a Realtime penalty box. Bottom line, the media doesn’t have time to watch ‘official’ online media content, especially when it interrupts more important pastimes like browsing chat rooms and message boards for inside dirt about a company that the company will undoubtedly never read because it’s too busy producing streaming video nobody bothers to watch.”
“At the end of the day,” says Peter Harris, general manager of the New York office of Access Communications, “with publications scaling back in staff and reporters responsible for several beats, it’s that much more important that we provide the news in a format they most desire. After all, the media is still the most important means to influence target audiences.”
But Williams believes the media will come around quickly. “In time, if you make it easier for people to get information, they are going to move to the next level of technology,” he says. “They will see the competitive advantage, and if they don’t we can still deliver text-only if they want it.”
Lissauer, meanwhile, believes that even if they don’t, other audiences are already eager for more creative content. “Yahoo! is looking for multimedia,” says Lissauer. “There’s no doubt the trend is toward putting more multimedia content in releases.”
Public relations firms say they are seeing more interest from their clients, too. “We are beginning to see people wake up and smell the coffee,” says Spataro. “The momentum started with the creation of more interactive press kits, and more interactive news rooms at company websites, and now it’s beginning to trickle down to interactive press releases.”
“While the traditional format hasn’t changed much, the smart communications professional knows that straight text isn’t going to attract online journalists nearly as well as a multimedia presentation,” says Nick Peters, senior vice president of Newstream a two-year-old Internet portal dedicated to press releases that include downloadable multimedia elements, and a joint venture between Business Wire and Medialink.
Every Newstream release is posted adjacent to one or more viewable and downloadable multimedia assets ranging from streaming video or audio clips, to photos and graphics, each with its own thumbnail image and text description. Most press releases posted on Newstream also contain a client logo in the upper right side of the page that acts as a link for the journalist back to the client’s home page or online pressroom.
PR Newswire, meanwhile, has a product it calls a multimedia press release that is particularly successful in Los Angeles, among entertainment clients, according to vice president of Internet strategies Vincent Park. “These multimedia releases include photos, videos, audio clips,” he says. “The more entertainment value we can provide, the more it enhances the reader’s experience, and the more eyeballs we can deliver to our clients.”
For a client like Six Flags, for example, a multimedia press release includes footage of a new ride at Magic Mountain, while Disney’s press release for the movie Monsters, Inc., included the movie trailer and sound bites from several of its stars and creators.
That’s just one example of the way in which PR people are beginning to use the Internet more creatively. Others new products are coming out of the agency world.
“We have taken some very innovative approaches to connecting with journalists in the age of the Internet,” says Peter Himler, managing director and a media relations expert at Burson-Marsteller. “For our HotJobs.com client’s recent advertising foray on the Super Bowl, we decided to post the company’s 30-second spot and sound bites from the CEO and chief marketing officer on B-M’s PressEvent.com website. Instead of sending writers at major print media dozens of news releases release and half-inch videotapes, we sent each a personalized e-mail with a link to the site. Within 36 hours of e-mailing to the key writers, we had more than 1,000 hits to the site, reflecting 500 unique visitors.”
Burson-Marsteller also offers its clients a product called Viper, a self-contained video that plays out in the body of an e-mail when the e-mail is opened.  It can be delivered without exceeding the file size
limits of most networks. Says Himler, “We have found this to be an effective tool for delivering specialized information directly to journalists’ desktops.”
“One application that can work is a brief Flash module in an email as a way of delivering a simple message and inviting reporters to take specific action,” says Fleishman-Hillard’s Wickenden.
For an event celebrating the 20th anniversary of Trivial Pursuit, for example, Fleishman contacted reporters with an email that announced the event and invited them to attend by clicking through the RSVP button. For the announcement of a Web-based extension of the Cleveland Clinic and the launch of an online pressroom, reporters received the notification via email with a Flash introduction they could click through to go directly to the pressroom to check it out.
Others recognize the potential to go beyond news, to provide richer, feature-oriented content.
Says Clark, “Smart companies realize that since the press release no longer has to play the boring old ‘who, what, where, when’ game, why not dress the text up and take it out to the prom? Today’s press release offers companies the opportunity to write the perfect feature article about a new product or strategy shift, and for a mere $400, that placed story will find itself showcased between ‘real’ articles on the headline list for that stock symbol.”
Himler suggests several best practices: “We would recommend not sending unsolicited attachments via e-mail. Firstly, many cannot accept files over a certain size; secondly, there is a fear of receiving tainted documents; and finally, most journalists don’t have the time to pour through a long-winded diatribe extolling your client’s virtues. A short personalized e-mail capturing the essence of the
story—with hyperlinks to or an offer to send JPEG images, video and more detailed information—is very effective.”
Finally new technology also enables companies to track their releases more effectively, and to measure their efficacy. 
One of the innovations PR Newswire has introduced is its T-button, which allows visitors to provide feedback on individual press releases, providing companies and their PR agencies with a mechanism for tracking how often releases are viewed and by whom, and how effective they are at reaching various audiences.
“It’s valuable marketing intelligence for PR people,” says Williams.
The T-button also allows visitors to fill out an order form to receive the company’s annual report, or other material.
For Spartaro, the ability to track press releases more effectively is the killer app that makes interactivity worthwhile. “Once you can tell a client how many people saw the press release, and how many went through from the release to the press room, or the investor center, or the website, that’s the sweet spot, because then you can demonstrate return on investment and increased accountability.”
The Internet has already enabled publishers, entrepreneurs and even ordinary individuals with too much time on their hands to create websites and e-zines that target remarkably narrow demographic groups, and to some observers it is surprising that corporations have not already followed suit.
As the more than 50,000 company news releases that are currently distributed every day by fax and snail mail make their way inexorably into real-time distribution to personalization-powered database and alert services, one will be able to receive self-customized newswires that only carry news of 3D videogame tools or hospitals in Kentucky,” predicts Michael Terpin, president of Internet Wire, the first online press release service.
“More companies of every size will be spurred to create content based on their unique news,” says Terpin. “There will be an upsurge in homegrown SOHO web publishers, for fun, self-promotion or profit, depending on the quality of one’s editorial or aggregation skills and the level of consumer or business interest in each niche.”
As for the press release itself, many observers see them evolving to the point that they become less of an end in themselves and more a means for introducing audiences—including, but not limited to reporters—to other aspects of the organization.
“The press release can become a kind of portal,” says Sockol. “It can become a way for reporters to access all kinds of additional information. Reporters don’t want to read a five-page press release; they want to be able to get to the information that interests them quickly. The beauty of the Internet is that if you use the technology right, reporters can select whatever they want to see.”
Says Wickenden, “For the future, I think you’re going to see increasingly streamlined approaches to press releases with the online pressroom emerging more and more as the central hub of two-way electronic communication. In addition to seeing more personalization capabilities on these sites, giving reporters the ability to customize the news flow they get from the company, we’re going to see other uses of multimedia to supplement the text-based news release format of information delivery.
“For example, let’s say a reporter wants greater texture for his or her story, or is looking for direct quotes from a recent presentation by the CEO, he or she can click to the ‘presentations’ section of the pressroom to view the slide show of the CEO’s presentation, which is searchable so the reporter can find specific phrases or chunks of information.”
As for the reluctance to use multimedia—and the reluctance of reporters to use it—that too will fade away. Says Wickenden, “Video and animation clips can help illustrate and provide additional depth of understanding and context for reporters working on stories where illustration is appropriate—to illuminate scientific, medical, artistic and engineering content, for example. In such cases, embedding a link in an
electronic press release, to a microsite or area of the pressroom, can be useful.”
A pharmaceutical company, for example, could use web-based animation to explain the mechanism through which its new drug works. A chemical plant might create an interactive tour of its new facility to explain all the safety measures in place. In time, an automobile company may even be able to allow journalists to “test drive” a new car online.
In the meantime, the newswires will continue to set new standards and offer new services. PR Newswire is in the process of creating what it calls “the press release of the future,” which turns simple press releases into something more suited to the digital age.
One of the companies helping beta-test the new service is Reader’s Digest, and Williams uses a typical Reader’s Digest press release to demonstrate how a release can become a portal to much richer, more comprehensive information about the company. “From the press release screen you can download the Reader’s Digest annual report. You can view the most recent webcast. If the release takes quotes from a speech, you can watch streaming video of the entire speech on your screen.”
The portal also provides an opportunity for readers to provide feedback. That may take the most elementary form—filling out a survey form—or it may involve jumping into chatrooms hosted by the company, even receiving answers to questions using instant messaging technology—although few clients have the resources to have someone available 24-7.
Another innovation, launched earlier this year, allows owners of Palm handheld devices to access PR Newswire releases wirelessly, while on the road.
“We’re trying to make information from our customers available on any device, anywhere, at any time,” says Williams.
That’s the future of the press release.