Max Tatton-Brown 12 Feb 2016 // 9:30AM GMT
The process of releasing your story to relevant audiences will always be a part of building positive understanding around what you’re doing. But, in this respect, the press release is a verb frozen in noun’s clothing. It has become a clumsy part of antique furniture in the life of a modern PR professional.
For this reason, I’ve been pretty hard on it recently. But today, it struck me that below the seemingly benign, stagnant surface of this old template, there lies a potentially more interesting conceit.
The press release format wraps a story in a natural game, designed to tempt a journalist to free it for their readers.
When trying to foster a community, it’s common to create social objects that get them involved. These can be all sorts of material from writing to pictures to posts to questions or competitions.
The best ones take advantage of something called the Zeigarnik Effect. This is the theory that “people remember uncompleted tasks better than completed tasks” — and will experience a natural desire to ‘close the loop’.
In the case of social objects, this means a piece of material that leaves a clear and simple action unperformed will invite the passive observer to become an active participant.
For a while, I’ve advocated replacing the traditional press release with more specific and modern pieces of material: for (a slightly stuffy) example, an announcement bylined to your leadership and supporting key facts as bullet points.
But the issue here is, by creating a more efficient and immediately interesting way to read the story, you have added a full stop. And the better a job you do at making that an interesting read, the more potent the effect of closing the circle becomes.
On some deeper level, you have made the journalist gently redundant and passive, instead of potentially provoking them to add value and feel empowered.
My point here is not that PRs are some kind of Machiavellian masterminds, swirling potions of datelines and quotes about excited CEOs. It’s that perhaps a fit has organically emerged between the mindset and goals of professional media and this common format.
I discussed an early draft of this piece with Chris Lake, who spent many years on the other side of the fence at Econsultancy, and now runs Empirical Proof. From his perspective, some of the beauty of the game is in this familiarity:
“Digestibility is a big deal. Games that have difficult to comprehend instructions are often abandoned before they are played, no matter how good they may be.”
When you see a press release, you know what you’re getting and you know what game you’re playing.
This is one of the challenges with innovation in the PR business. If the output is too unfamiliar to other stakeholders, you may have shot yourself in the foot.
I’ll be honest, I still hate it.
You’ll notice that I’m not saying the press release is a desirable thing or the best way to share a story. I still don’t believe it is, especially for anything beyond building media relations. And, of course it still relies on a story worth saving under the surface.
But I’ll give you this: if there’s one thing the press release does well, it’s creating that feeling of “how on earth did they do such a bad job of telling the real story here?”
For me at least, I can make peace with the release in that sentence by worrying less about the how and more about the why.
Max Tatton-Brown is founding director of Augur.