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Do press releases matter in the digital age?

WACs operating teletype machines, WWII era.

In 1906 the Pennsylvania Railroad issued the world’s first press release, inviting reporters to cover a catastrophic train wreck in Atlantic City. For a century afterward, the press release remained the best way to generate widespread media coverage of your organization’s news. And media coverage mattered.

But in today’s environment of social media, email, text alerts and websites, traditional media such as television, newspapers and radio are no longer the sole gatekeepers of news. Now there are so many opportunities to tell your story — on an almost continual basis, direct to your audiences without the intermediation of third-party media — that it begs the question: Are press releases relevant? Are they worth the time?

At PartnersCreative, we believe the answer is more nuanced than a simple yes or no.

It is clear that earned coverage in traditional media still has value. Audiences — particularly those who have not yet entered into your loyalty loop — want authentic, researched and reasoned third-party perspective on your brand and the goods and services you promote.

Scene outside grand opening event at Cabela's Missoula, Montana.
In 2015 we helped Cabela’s spread the word about the grand opening of its Missoula store. A press release we distributed about the event drew coverage as far away as Spokane and helped attract several thousand people to the grand opening event.

Calculating earned media value has always been a dicey business, but just ask Nike about what news coverage can do: in the days immediately after the company announced it would feature former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick in its 30th anniversary “Just Do It” campaign, Nike’s stock price rose to an all-time high, with the company reporting that it had earned more value from media coverage of the campaign than it paid to run the ad itself.

For brands big and small, a well-placed, well-written press release can still be an effective means to jump-start news coverage.

Trouble is, media outlets typically get hundreds, if not thousands, of press releases every week. Hearing a whisper in this roar has always been a challenge, but it has become more so as newsrooms shrink. Today, PR professionals outnumber working journalists by a ratio of six to one, according to analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Labor.

And then there’s the issue of trust. Less than half the U.S. population trusts the media today, according to the 2018 Edelman Trust Survey. (Note that in that survey, “the media” includes social and owned platforms as well as traditional third-party media. Trust of news reporters remains generally strong, according to the survey.) A different (and somewhat older) study by Nielsen found that people trust recommendations from friends, content on branded websites and consumer opinions posted online more than they trust editorial content such as newspaper articles. However, people still trust editorial content more than they trust paid advertising.

Given all of this, our recommendation is the same today that it has been for years: Make traditional media relations a part of — but not the whole of — your reputation curation strategy. And when you have news to share, make press releases a part of — but not the whole of — your traditional media relations tactics. Depending on your goals, market and other factors, you should also consider sharing your news via your own website or blog, your email lists, paid social media advertising, event sponsorships, sponsored content and/or other channels.

Our recommendation comes with an important caveat: There’s a bright line between distributing a press release and spamming the media. Our rule of thumb at PartnersCreative is to never send a press release to more than two individuals at a given news outlet. We always build our distribution lists to match the nature of the news: business news goes to the business reporter, event listings go to the calendar editor, and so on. And we never use so-called “wire” services. In fact, our approach often relies on pitching just one reporter or editor at one outlet when a story has more value as an “exclusive,” when we have a strong relationship with the person we are pitching, or when the story is only relevant to the audience of that single outlet. With this approach we consistently get results for our clients while protecting our own reputation as reliable and respectful PR professionals.

In our next article we’ll explore some other important ways to make sure that your press release gets covered by the media.