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PR for SMEs: What is a Press Release?

Posted by Suzy Simpson May 30, 2014 11:00:00 AM

Topics: PR, News, Advertising, press releases, SMEs, distribution, online press

Press releases are the bread and butter of PR, but we in the industry can sometimes assume that everyone knows the ins and outs of this staple.
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Many SMEs, particularly those graduating from start-up status, won't have been exposed to the workings of this PR fundamental, so in this guide, we'll look at where press releases come from, how they're distributed and how they turn into coverage for a business.
 
What is a press release?
 
In its decidedly dry definition, Collins Dictionary states a press release is:
 
"An official announcement or account of a news item circulated to the press."
 
The first press release was created by journalist and publicity manager Ivy Lee, who encouraged the Pennsylvania Railroad to foster open communication with the media and prevent rumours spreading in the wake of the disastrous 1906 Atlantic City train wreck.
 
However, it's the grandfather of public relations Edward Bernays who is credited with refining the creation and use of press releases as a publicity tool.
 
In the modern era, press releases have become so widely adopted that virtually every company with a marketing department will unleash one at the slightest provocation. The email inboxes of journalists are suffused with a daily barrage of press releases - meaning there's more competition than ever before when it comes to getting your message heard.
 
Why use press releases?
 
Given the wide range of marketing avenues open to businesses, including paid and online advertising, some might question the value of using a traditional method like press releases.
 
The common reasoning behind going down the press release route is that impartial coverage can be exponentially more valuable than that which you pay for. In simple terms, you're more likely to believe and invest in something a third party tells you is good or exciting than if someone trumpets their own products or services.
 
This could be considered especially true in our current era, where the average man on the street is saturated with thousands of adverts a day.
 
It's not entirely black and white, however, and PR activities like press releases can often work well in tandem with paid endeavours.
 
Where do press releases come from?
 
Inception: In theory, press releases are produced when something newsworthy happens within or to a company. In practice, however, it's common for businesses to overestimate how likely they are to gain coverage around a specific issue.
 
We've produced a wealth of articles discussing how to get this right, but suffice to say - most companies could benefit from an objective appraisal of their processes in this regard.
 
The majority of businesses of sufficient size will recognise the value that coverage in the media can bring and the idea for a press release will typically arise from upper management, a specific wing of the business, a marketing department (or individual responsible for marketing), or an outsourced agency.
 
In some cases, particularly where a dedicated marketing resource or external agency is being utilised, companies will be privy to advanced editorial calendars or forward features lists. These set out what a publication is looking to cover within the next few months - giving marketers a chance to prime their company or client's releases ahead of time.
 
Creation: Once the idea comes to fruition - the press release is then composed. How this is done differs on the size, shape and capabilities of a company. As mentioned above, they may also choose to outsource press release production and distribution to an agency.
 
Press releases typically go through a number of drafts as key messages are decided upon and superfluous material boiled away. In some cases, this process can involve a lot of back and forth - leading to a big gap between the newsworthy occurrence and a press release being put out.
 
This can cause problems if the news is particularly time-sensitive, reliant on making the deadline for an issue of a publication, or is set to tie in with a specific event.
 
Getting the message out
 
Once a press release is written and approved, it's time to distribute it to the media. It's no exaggeration to say that targeting where to send it can make or break the success of a given release.
 
Companies without a dedicated marketing resource may simply opt to fire it out indiscriminately - bombarding any publication that comes to mind in the hope of gaining widespread coverage. Similarly, the rise of sites that host releases for free has led to the popular trend of uploading releases online in the hopes of attracting the eye of the media.
 
However, where marketing expertise is present - there's likely to be some consideration as to where will be best to send the release and what type of exposure the company is attempting to get out of it. Larger and long-serving companies with stand-alone marketing departments are likely to have developed a relationship with journalists at relevant publications and so will have a firm idea where their news is likely to be best received.
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Similarly, external agencies are hired and fired on the basis of their relationships with the media. As such, these organisations usually have robust processes and forward features lists in place to ensure maximum exposure for any given release.
 
The bottom line
 
With so many press releases in circulation, journalists are faced with no shortage of potential news to cover on a daily basis. Many have denounced this symbiosis between marketers and the press, claiming it's led to the death of investigative journalism and turned much of the media into little more than so-called 'churn-alists'.
 
However, given their rampant popularity and tried and tested success - for better or worse, press releases aren't likely to be going anywhere anytime soon.
 
And you?
 
Do you have any experiences with press releases? Good or bad - we want to hear your views, so don't be a stranger and leave us a comment below.
 
And if you're an SME interested in learning more about promoting your business, be sure to check out our comprehensive guide on how to decide on and enact virtually every type of PR and marketing activity:
Images courtesy of Mick Baker(rooster) on Flickr, Public domain pictures on Pixabay, Wikipedia
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