"We must reinvent the press release. What's it meant to do again?"

22 January 2007

"PR people nowadays just can't write for shit."

That's Jeremy Pepper writing on the undedifying spectacle of a bunch of people arguing about whether press releases should come pre-equipped with Del.icio.us tags. Yes, I know those people refer to it as the Social Media Press Release, but the former just seems a better explanation given that a group of PRs and non-PRs can't actually define what is meant to go into the new-format release without falling out.

After Jeremiah Owyang and Stowe Boyd - who you might regard as being at the happy-clappy end of the social-media revolution - wrote about how they could not understand why PRs were trying to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to the resolutely Media 1.0 press release, the PRs rounded on them with rebuttals along the lines of: "You silly boys, you just don't understand how PR works." I've never been under impression they want to know how PR works - and a lot of people like it that way.

I think I'm going over old ground here, but the whole idea of the Social Media Press Release is pointless. It's solving a problem that doesn't exist without actually addressing problems that do. For the last few years, I've been saying to PRs that their contact with the press, particularly those in trade media, is going to go away. They need to go direct to the user. And the press release is a piss-poor way of selling things direct.

Why is that the case? Because the press release was never designed to be consumed unadulterated. It was, and still is, a relatively efficient way of getting an announcement to 10, 20 or more people. You don't have to call each of them up individually, you just send the release using the fastest means available. If they want to know more, they call you (or they call other people). Those people were, and are, journalists.

That "PR people can't write for shit" doesn't matter all that much in the traditional environment. The stuff will get translated - it better had or it will be ignored by the reader.

Now, the people behind the Social Media Press Release understand one thing - that the message is going direct, around the filtering process put in place by the traditional media. What they don't seem to understand is that a lot of people reading those releases are not much interested in 'remixing' the content or 'engaging in the conversation'. I have no interest in conversing with Reckitt Benckiser over their latest floor cleaner. I'd like to know what it does if I'm standing in a supermarket looking for floor cleaner - and in words I can understand without a barrelful of quotes from enthusiastic veeps of marketing and analysts. But I'm not subscribing to RSS feeds to find out about floor cleaners.

Maybe if I feel strongly enough as a consumer to start arguing the toss over the launch on a blog, I will start looking further. Clarins' launch of a cream that magically blocks 'artificial' electromagnetic waves (presumably allowing the natural ones through) would drive me to a comment or two, beyond what reporters such as Alok Jha have already written, but I don't think that was the sort of commentary the social-media PR brethren had in mind. However, a few Del.icio.us tags at the end is not going to make a difference to that. I'm even a little wary of using features that amount to putting a tracker signal on the material that companies send out. The core of the issue is the content of the release or whatever you want to call a corporate announcement, not its fancypants XML wrapping.

The tracker is the only thing that makes sense to me about the whole initiative in that it has an objective - it goes back to an earlier effort by PRs to standardise on a new-technology press release using XML a few years back. It had nothing to do with providing more succinct or readable information - it's sole feature was to track coverage assuming that hacks played ball and kept the tags in place through four or five editing processes. It didn't work then. It won't work now, not least because the end user is no more mindful of what PRs want than journalists are right now.

3 Comments

Well, you said more eloquently what I was trying to say. Fix the content to get it out to where it needs to go, and that includes media and consumers.

Thanks.

Here's the thing, Chris. Press releases are not written by public relations practitioners for the most part. What the practitioner submits to the client bears little resemblance to what is actually issued after the VP of sales/CEO/product engineer/admin goes through it.

The value of a good practitioner is in the ability to present the real need of the reader, be it the customer or the journalist, in a succinct way and then the product of service provided by the client effectively. But very few clients allow the practitioner to do that job. Most see public relations as a tactical clerical function and never take advantage of the services strategic communication skills.

What passes for public relations is merely publicity. So don't shoot the messenger. Aim higher up the corporate ladder. The next time you meet with a CEO of an offending company, tell him to let the PR people do their job. Everyone will be happier.

Lou,

I agree. I nearly bunged an aside in about the committee-written nature of releases. But, and this was the point I was trying to make: it has never really mattered. As long as there was enough content in there to indicate what Company X had done and it was important (or at least seen by the hack as important), that development was going to get covered.

In fact, having opaque and poorly constructed press releases actually works in favour of the hack, especially those who specialise in a sector - they know what's coming up anyway and can read things into announcements that were left on the cutting-room floor by the corporate committee. The precise form of the release is often irrelevant, so there's not a lot of point asking for it to be changed, especially if that makes life easier for a competitor. I like writing - I have no interest in having other people do it for.

But that won't work with direct communications with users or customers. In some cases, the answer will be very simple. For an engineering audience, you can pretty much put the main features of each new component in a product RSS feed and let people filter it for themselves. No need for quotes or whizbang multimedia widgets. That is why, I think direct communication is going to be a lot easier for trade PRs to adapt to than for consumer agencies who mainly have dealt only with the press in the past. There are those people who have always done public relations in the widest sense - I don't believe their skill sets have changed much at all. But there is a large group of PRs who need to learn those skills real fast rather than believing that some chunks of XML will change their lives.