Death by Content: How Press Release Abuse Killed Public Relations

In the not too distant past, the sole purpose of a press release was to

provide journalists with information likely to be of interest to the public; containing what media sources still call “news value.”

Prior to fax machines, paper press releases were delivered by human messengers to major wire services such as AP, UPI and Dow Jones, which in turn communicated the information to their subscribing media outlets over a broadtape machine – which was much like a financial ticker tape, but used a much wider roll of paper. For non-daily news sources such as magazines, press releases were often sent through the US Mail. Regardless of how they were delivered, press releases served an important role in mass communication.

But the press release has lost its franchise as an effective communication tool, for two reasons:

  • Online news portals and email killed the underlying functionality of paper press releases as a news dissemination tool. Technology could deliver news faster, and this was a good thing.

  • Press releases became platforms to deliver content that contained little or no news value, and was of no practical value or interest to the press. PR practitioners began using the press release as a marketing and propaganda tool, and this was a bad thing.

Over the past two decades, the sustained volume of press release abuse by PR practitioners – driven in large measure by corporate executives who fail to understand that journalists are not ad hoc members of their company’s Communications Department – has greatly diminished the stature of the public relations profession in the eyes of journalists, and has also reduced the ability of PR pros to leverage the media as a valuable means of securing objective, third-party exposure and validation for their company, product or cause.

As the number of journalists who post “Do not send press releases or pitch story ideas to me” on their Cision or Vocus profiles increases every year, the PR profession will eventually lose one of its most fundamental roles: to discover or create content that has bona fide news value, and to properly package and present that information to media sources.

If journalists find no practical need for flacks, organizations will follow their lead. For public companies, dissemination of financial results and material news will be handled by their legal department. Because press releases are now considered sales collateral by their target audiences, “media relations” for all companies will be managed by the marketing department. Public Relations, as a profession and a function, will simply cease to exist.

Twitter, blogs and other social media-based “pull” tools may eventually replace the press release altogether. But unlike social media, press releases have been pushed at journalists, filling their inboxes, wasting their time, and reinforcing the media’s perception of PR as a self-serving and often ignorant generator of meaningless noise.

It may be too late to repair the self-inflicted damage done to the PR profession by years of press release abuse.

Morphing from a Public Relations professional into a Social Media professional may buy some additional career tenure for young communications practitioners, and hopefully they’ll learn from the lessons of PR’s suicide: that whether it’s tweeted, posted or contained in a press release, news and information lacking intrinsic value will always reflect poorly on its source. And over time, irrelevant content will make you irrelevant.

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