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The press release is dead: Embrace new ways to reach readers

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BY MATT MILLER

For those of us in the public relations realm, the press release is an old friend. Trustworthy, humble, familiar: The press release has served us well. I know. I’ve written and sent hundreds.
But that old friend has not been looking too well lately, and it’s time to accept the inevitable. The press release, as a communications tool, is dead. Or it should be.This may not be easy to hear. After all, the press release is ingrained in communications — not only for public relations staff, but also for our bosses. But let’s consider the new media climate and assess whether the press release actually fits.
First, it’s not news to anyone reading this that newspaper staff positions have been gutted. That means it’s harder than ever to find someone to cover your outdoors and environmental story.
You used to send out a press release and reporters called back minutes later requesting interviews. How often does that happen now?
But there’s a worse fate for a press release than being ignored. An overworked reporter may simply plug the press release, verbatim, into the newspaper (or email newsletter). Why is that bad? It’s a placement, right?
Well, sort of. The problem is, press releases are not very reader friendly. You may tell yourself that 25,000 readers saw your release on page 12 of the local newspaper, but evidence suggests otherwise. After all, the press release contains ingredients that are fatal to your audience. Inevitably, there’s a listing of partners — important to the partners but no one else. There are canned quotes — and yes, they read like canned quotes. The press release is filled with organizational message points — probably message points that were group edited ad nauseum. To the reader, those messages seem contrived, inauthentic and, well, like they were written by a committee. Non-profit press releases are all filled with predictable pronouncements: every project is collaborative, science-based and a win-win.
Your reader is not buying it. Readers have a lot to choose from online and elsewhere. Why would they read this press release? They want stories, they want opinions. They want writing that connects to their passions.
You can provide this. It’s time to scrap the press release, and be your own media. Through blogs, podcasts and video, you can deliver creative content that is a story — not a rehashing of tired message points. As a public relations professional, you should rejoice at this development. While the press release is so predictable you can write it in your sleep, if you’re honest you’ll also admit that writing them is boring.
Being your own media means you can be creative. Instead of being behind the scenes, your voice matters. Your personal connections to the work matter. Instead of including 10 quotes about why a new policy is good for fisheries, you can tell a fishing story.
Being your own media is interactive. Your audience will tell you when they like something, and when they don’t. Google an-alytics will round out that picture — people will stay with an online story they like. They will bounce away from stories that are boring or filled with jargon.
I’ve seen this with the blog Cool Green Science, which I run for The Nature Conservancy.When I started this blog three years ago, many colleagues predicted failure. No one will want to read a science blog. I was given an ultimatum. For the organization to support the blog, I had to guarantee at least 10,000 unique readers a month in the first year — and many thought that this would be a significant challenge. Three years later, we’re attracting 150,000 readers per month (and growing), and other media outlets — including major newspapers — pick up our content far more than any organizational press release.
But it’s clear that you can’t just put anything on the blog. Some people start blogs but just use them as a press release library. What works for Cool Green Science are the stories that connect to our audience’s passions: Fish and fishing, birding, unusual wildlife, cool research findings. They love to geek out over science, and they’ll come back for writers they enjoy. That’s why Ted Williams is now writing a column for us. Ornithologist Joe Smith writes a monthly feature on the “science of backyard birds” that is the most popular series ever run by our organization. In my own writing, I now incorporate my own interests and adventures and quirky passions — and the audience continues to grow.
On the flip side, if it’s boring, people leave. Period. A lot of conventional wisdom about blog length is flat-out wrong. People will stay for a long feature, if it’s interesting and well written. People spend from five to eight minutes on our essays and features, long enough to read a fairly lengthy piece. But I ran a story on fire ecology that was essentially a press release. For that story, people stayed on the page an average of 12 seconds. Yes, it contains all the message points we “have” to feature. But no one sticks around to see that information.
Your organization’s membership has reasons for supporting you that have nothing to do with your internal buzzwords. They want to see real wildlife, real adventure and real people. They want to see you in your stories. So let the press release rest in peace — and give your audience what they want: A story. ♦
— Matt Miller is director of science communications for The Nature Conservancy. Read more at blog.nature.org/science

 
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