A History of Press Releases

Writing a decent press release is a noble art. I say art, but the reality is probably more corporate than creative. And I say noble, but the reality is often more Machiavellian than morally motivated.

Why use press release?
Press releases are generally used by companies to present information in a straight-forward and factual manner, often in response to an event, a positive change or sometimes a PR crisis. They have been described by American publicist Fraser Seitel as “the granddaddy of public relations writing” and are generally sent to journalists in order to persuade them to feature the information in whichever publication they represent. Apparently many journalists hate them. I say apparently but I know this from the articles I’ve read and the emails I receive from some journalists!

Where did it all start?
In the late 1880s it was common for the US congress members to visit Newspaper Row in Washington D.C. in order to pass on titbits of information about their political manifestos. However, it is widely felt that the first official press release was sent by an American PR man named Ivy Lee in 1906. A train crash in Atlantic City, New Jersey, left 50 dead but resulted in the creation of a useful public relations tool – perhaps not the fairest of swaps.
Following the crash, Ivy Lee convinced his client Pennsylvania Railroad to let him write a statement offering an explanation of what had happened and allegedly the New York Times printed Lee’s press release verbatim.

Press releases today
Over a century later, press releases are still used as an attempt to lead journalists firmly by the nose to whatever an organisation may consider to be a newsworthy story. Having worked in house on magazines, I know many press releases get scanned for quotes and statistics and then are discarded. However, the remit of press releases has increased, with many small businesses and startups using them as a way of reaching out to customers. The key is to steer clear of an indiscriminate use of press releases lest you be accused of ‘churnalism’ or drown your audience in information they do not wish to hear.

What the future holds
A floundering print market and the onslaught of its supercilious competitor – the internet – have changed the manner in which press releases are submitted. Many commercial websites offer fee-based press release writing services which aim to make news about a company more visible and more easily found via search engines. This has created a more level playing-field for smaller businesses that would ordinarily be unable to afford the rates charged by large PR companies. Many of the people I work with are SMBs and SMEs or startups launching their product. An element of originality can be introduced via the use of Video News Releases (VNRs) and these can be turned into podcasts, blogs or community websites. Furthermore, it is now common to include hyperlinks and keywords within press release content in order to capitalise on web-marketing potential and boost SEO.

Despite developments within the market in which they are used, Ivy Lee can rest peacefully in the knowledge that the press release is likely to remain a PR “granddaddy” for some time yet, given the pickup rate I’ve seen recently.

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