In today’s world of Twitter-breaking stories and shrinking newsroom staffs, the press release seems to be falling to the wayside. Do reporters even pay attention to the classic release anymore? Is that really what’s going to get their attention among the hundreds of communications channels out there?
With an evolution of the public relations industry taking place over the last 20 years with the onset of the Internet, I wondered if press releases are still doing the job they were intended to do – the job of disseminating news to the masses like they did over 100 years ago when the Pennsylvania Railroad delivered a public statement that spawned the age of the press release. Or were they simply something organizations decided to issue because it just felt right?
I decided to ask a reporter friend of mine what she thought about releases. Carla Jean Whitley is associate editor of Birmingham magazine and frequently writes about music, events and small businesses for the publication. She’s also worked as a reporter, copy editor and designer at several Alabama newspapers, so I figured she’s no stranger to the press release. Some of her answers may surprise you.
Q: How many press releases do you receive on a daily or weekly basis?
A: I can only guess, but a couple dozen is a safe bet.
Q: Do press releases ever give you ideas or sources for stories?
A. Absolutely. Because I work at a city magazine, press releases from local organizations often alert me to things that are happening in the community. I’m always working to develop sources and keep tabs on what’s new in Birmingham, and these press releases are very helpful.
Q. What makes a press release stand out to you?
A. When I open a press release, I’m not looking for a snappy lead or clever marketing (though those aren’t necessarily a bad thing). All I really need is clear information about the story you’re pitching. It’s as simple as the five W’s and H [author’s note: who, what, when, where, why and how for those of you who don’t pay homage to the AP Sylebook].
Q. What makes a press release head straight to the trash?
A. I have two pet peeves when it comes to press releases. (1) It’s obvious that a publicist has never picked up the magazine or visited our Web site when they propose a feature that would never appear in Birmingham magazine. Because I write about music, I sometimes receive emails asking me to review a concert for the next issue of the magazine. But we’re a monthly, so a concert review wouldn’t appear until two months after the show. That’s a waste of space and not at all useful for our readers! (2) The other thing that really gets under my skin is a press release that doesn’t get to the point until the second page. This happens more often than you would think. I want to know why you’re contacting me in the first paragraph of the release. When I have to continue to a second page, I begin to wonder if the event/product/whatever you’re pitching is really so exciting. I should mention, though, that the abundance of emails from publicists asking me to interview the band they represent was one of the key motivations for launching our music blog. That type of coverage wouldn’t make sense in the print edition of a local, monthly magazine, but it’s of great use to our readers when it’s delivered the week of a concert.
Q. What do you most use press releases for?
A. After I read the first several paragraphs, most of press releases merit the delete button. The majority of releases I receive simply aren’t relevant to my work. But the releases that result in a story idea are excellent for background information. They provide a starting point as I prepare for an interview, giving me an idea of what I will ask the subject and also pointing me in the direction of additional research.
A. Approach me with a story that is relevant to my audience and that makes sense for my publication. In my experience, the best publicists are those who are familiar with the work of the writers they pitch. And once I’ve seen that you’ve done your research and know my audience, I pay close attention when I see your name in my inbox.
More encouraging than I would have guessed! So, it turns out the classic press release might still have a place in the ever-changing world of media and news dissemination. Just don’t pitch Carla Jean on the opening of your chicken feed store in New Hampshire – that will probably merit the delete button.