This may sound surprising coming from the owner of a digital PR agency, but I’ve got a love/hate relationship with press releases. If I’m being honest, sometimes it’s mostly hate (and primarily directed toward press release distribution services that make big promises and rarely, if ever, deliver). And I’m not alone: many pros in the PR industry are ready to dance on the grave of traditional press release distribution.
Here’s what most people don’t realize about distributing press releases:
- The inherent SEO value of press release distribution via wire services is exactly zero, and has been for years.
- Press release distribution services are expensive and rarely produce ROI.
- Most ideas for press releases don’t need to be transformed into a traditional press release – a blog post will be sufficient.
- You get better results by developing relationships with reporters and pitching them directly – or even cold-pitching reporters directly via email.
- Unless you’ve strategically created something targeted to your audience and worth talking about, the news you have to share probably isn’t news at all.
- Mass pitching is a terrible idea, and you (or your PR rep) should never do it.
Let’s tackle these one at a time, and then review when it is a good idea to send out a press release.
The (Nonexistent) SEO Value of Press Release Distribution
As mentioned and linked to above, if you’re expecting the hundreds of backlinks that press release distribution services provide to rocket your site to the top of SERPs, you might as well be waiting for Godot. Here’s what happens when you upload and distribute a press release via a traditional wire service:
1. Your release gets posted on PRWeb, PRNewswire or whatever press release distribution service(s) you choose. One-off, DIY national press release distribution via these services costs around $400. PRNewswire has a nifty option that puts your press release headline and photo on a giant screen in Times Square for just long enough for them to capture the image, which you can use in future marketing materials. This costs substantially more.
Your press release is then posted online and added to an email digest that gets sent to reporters…along with all the other press releases in your industry that were distributed that day. I asked Dan Tynan, former editor of Yahoo! Tech and current reporter for The Guardian, if he ever scrolled through these press release digests.
“God, no. Do people actually do that? Wow,” Tynan said. “I have a sudden vision of some pathetic freelancer desperate for stories to cover. That just makes me want to hug a puppy.”
Beyond the money you’ll spend, there is a pretty significant time cost to using press release distribution services as well. Plan to put in at least an hour uploading the release, image assets, videos, hyperlinking to resources, etc. Here’s what the finished product will look like once it’s live on the site:
2. The PRWeb version of the release will likely get “picked up” by 200+ media outlets, ranging from Digital Journal to The Boston Globe. This is automatically syndicated and not editorially reviews, and, to be frank, isn’t worth much of anything. Here’s what this looks like in action:
3. You’ll get a pretty report. The release distribution service(s) you choose will send you graphs and charts that detail how far and wide your news has spread. This will include the websites that picked up your news (there will be hundreds, but like a tree falling in the woods with no one to hear it, does content really exist if nobody sees it?), headline impressions (they don’t really matter), page reads (a significantly lower number, that may or may not matter), and interactions/clicks (see previous parenthetical). These reports look impressive, but when you dive into the actual KPIs and ROI, the results of the distribution will probably leave something to be desired.
4. It’s very, very likely that none of the 200+ pickups will do anything for you at all. In all of the years that we’ve been writing, distributing and pitching press releases, only a couple of unique pieces of earned media coverage (from smaller bloggers) ever came from the “higher visibility” that press release distribution services offer.
However, depending on the news you’re distributing, you will get weirdos who will call the number listed on the press release and A) try to sell you something, or B) try to convince you of a conspiracy theory – this actually happened to me a few years ago, and if you’re curious the conspiracy theory involved chemtrails.
If this is painting a bleak picture of what you can expect out of standard press release distribution via wire services, good. It’s meant to. I’ve got nothing against the distribution services, and we still use them at TCF (old habits die hard, plus press release distribution is included as part of our large and very expensive PR software package).
But I want to make it clear that you shouldn’t waste your time or resources, or rely on, press release distribution services as an exclusive method of getting your news “out there.” Even if you do everything right, they probably won’t get the job done.
I’m not saying that press releases are useless – far from it. In fact, we regularly use press releases as a way to generate earned media coverage for our clients, across all kinds of industries.
Press releases are still a legitimate way to help tell company stories, educate potential clients and customers, and secure earned media coverage. We have great success with writing and pitching press releases – we’ve sent a couple this year that have generated earned media coverage with an ad value equivalent worth $1 million or more.
If You Want Earned Media Coverage, You Need More Than a Press Release – You Need Actual News
Now that we’ve established that press release distribution services tend to provide garbage ROI, let’s talk about what does work: telling interesting stories in a way that’s easy to understand and ties in with company messaging, while providing value to your target audience. This is difficult to say and even harder to do — which is where a PR agency or in-house resource can come in handy.
Let’s start with the release itself. What kind of news are you sharing? Here are several good starting points:
• Launch of a new product or service – you’ll have the most success with this if the product or service is unique (like the press release about the first Bitcoin ATM in the US we used as an example above, which was covered everywhere from Mashable and CNET to The New Yorker, all as a result of directly pitching reporters). If you’re not launching something new or that provides a unique value to buyers, you’re going to struggle to get covered.
• Unique statistics – if you’ve got enough customers or a big enough user base to poll and get statistically significant numbers, you can use the data to generate earned media coverage for your company. Reporters love fresh, compelling, unique stats for their articles, and if you can give it to them you’ll find those numbers being cited and re-cited all over the internet (often with links back to your website).
• Major milestones – Are you the first to do something substantial? Did you just hit your 100,000th user? Have you sold 1 million gallons/dollars/units of your widgets? These can all be pitchable moments.
• Company stories – Do your company executives spend their vacation time saving endangered species? Do you have a killer company culture and a 0% turnover rate, and you have secrets to success you can share with others?
• Events – Are you hosting an event that provides value to your target audience? Are interesting/successful people attending/speaking? If so, reporters will likely want to be there as well.
• Newsjacking – Is there a something going on in the news that you have a unique angle or an educated perspective on? A potential solution to a problem? Newsjacking could be your best bet. This requires you to act fast, but can pay off big time.
Stories that are difficult to pitch and get media coverage out of include:
• New promotions/hires (unless the person is well known in your industry)
• New versions of your product (unless your product is very widely known/used)
• Website redesign (unless you summoned the ghost of van Gogh to design it, or something equally impressive)
If you’ve done your job and the news you’ve created is interesting, the next step is to tell that story. This is where the press release comes into play. In my opinion, it’s still the best and easiest way to share your news and spread your message.
I tapped Dan Tynan for some advice on writing a press release that gets noticed by journalists, and here’s what he said:
A press release catches my attention when:
A) It is really bad, in which case I mock it mercilessly, sharing it with PR friends
B) Pisses me off – I will sometimes shoot off a curt reply
C) Is really good (almost never, like 0.00001%)
D) It’s about something I happen to be writing/researching at the moment (also pretty rare)
E) Is about something I was not aware of and I think my editors might be interested. Again, pretty rare.
Two recent examples of that: some company sent me a release about WIFI in prisons. Did you know that prisons are now, finally, getting WIFI? I didn’t. So I pitched that to my editor at The Guardian, and she came back with an idea for a larger story about prisons and whether the internet should be considered a “right” for inmates to have.
Another, slightly off topic: this wasn’t a press release, but someone responding to a HARO query about AI, who pitched me on an idea called “augmented eternity” from her client. That turned into this story.
Some stories don’t need to be made into full-fledged press releases to become pitchable – the news is just as easily shared as a blog post that gets sent to journalists. In fact, all press releases should be posted on the company’s site (as either a blog post or as a page in the news section of the website) before it gets sent out via press release distribution services anyway. In most cases, a blog post version of a press release is completely adequate.
If you’re writing your press release correctly, it should read as though it’s a news article itself. There should be quotes that can be pulled out of context and still convey the right message, from both the company and a customer/user/other person getting benefit from the news you’re announcing. Often, reporters will copy/paste these quotes into their coverage – or even copy/paste entire sections of your release (you’d be surprised how many major media outlets do this).
This is why the easiest, most organic way to thoroughly cover the who/what/when/where/why (+why anyone should care) is still a press release, even if that press release takes the form of a blog post. Anything else is a just an inconvenient patchwork of email strings, phone calls and DropBox links.
If you send a well-written press release with links to all relevant assets to reporters, they’ll have everything they need to write a story. Occasionally – less than half of the time, in our experience – you’ll get contacted for more information or an additional quote.
Direct Pitching vs. Using Press Release Distribution Services
A few years ago, I decided to keep track of how many pieces of earned media coverage came from direct pitching vs. the press release distribution services. That experiment ended after six months, when I realized I had literally hundreds of links to articles that featured clients…and all of them came from directly pitching reporters.
Sure, I had thousands of links to pickups of various press releases – and some of the headlines have tens of thousands of impressions. But again, when you track that down to ROI…I have yet to find anything significant.
Aly Walansky writes for the Today show website, Food and Wine magazine, AskMen and many other media outlets you’ve heard of. When I asked her when the last time she went through the releases that get sent to her via the press release distribution services, and then actually covered one of them, her response was telling:
“It’s probably the most discouraging answer ever – it was months ago, and even then it was because it was something I was already looking for. I didn’t become interested in the topic BECAUSE of the press release.”
If you want reporters to cover your news, you’ve got to know what it is that they’re covering at the moment and reach out to them directly to let them know what you’ve got going on. Acceptable methods of outreach include:
• Twitter (e.g.: we sent a tweet during CES that resulted in a client getting profiled in Wired magazine)
• Email pitching (a quick Google search usually turns up most email addresses)
• Submitting tips to websites (when you can’t find a direct reporter to pitch, but the outlet is relevant)
• Phone calls (only if you know the reporter already – nobody likes getting sales calls from strangers, especially busy journalists on deadline)
• Snail mail (if you’re launching a physical product and want to ask for reviews – physical addresses for all major outlets are easy to find)
Again, this is where a PR agency can be a huge benefit. The media monitoring and outreach databases that PR agencies use are incredibly expensive, and can be cost prohibitive for many companies to take on internally. The tools and services we use at TCF cost over $40,000 per year, which gives us a lot of capabilities and contacts that the average business owner or marketing department doesn’t have.
These fancy PR tools give us access to every reporter, producer and editor at every media outlet you can imagine, as well as thousands that you can’t. They also allow us to track the ad value of each piece of media coverage, and let us know when media coverage goes live, including client mentions on TV. In short, if you can afford to hire a PR agency to manage your press release (or ongoing PR needs), you’ll find immense and immediate value in the tools they have at their disposal. That said, it’s still possible to DIY and get results.
Although targeting is important and you should research every reporter you pitch, at the end of the day pitching is largely a numbers game. If your list of journalists to pitch your release to is only 3 lines long and you haven’t built a relationship with any of them yet, you’re unlikely to get any traction unless your news is truly spectacular. Typically, we pitch 20-100 journalists that we research in advance and reach out to individually (NOT in a mass email pitch to everyone at once).
This brings me to my final point…
Mass Pitching Your Way to Press Release Distribution is for Amateurs (at least, it’ll make you look like one)
Whether you’re pitching your press release yourself or hiring somebody else to do it, make sure those pitches go out individually and not as a mass pitch to everyone at once. If you’re hiring a PR pro to manage the writing and/or pitching of your press release, ask if they plan to mass pitch or individually pitch to their list, and insist on the latter up front.
Those same fancy PR tools I mentioned earlier enable PR pros to mass-email your release to as many journalists as they want. This is a terrible feature and PR reps as a whole will get a much better reputation if it ever goes away. There are even “coverage wizard” options that will auto-pull lists of journalists, editors and producers for you based on a specific beat. While this can be a good starting point, it’s important to A) research each person before you reach out to them, and B) never mass pitch everyone at once (in case I haven’t made that clear enough yet).
There are a couple of reasons why mass pitching is a horrible idea. For one, it’s likely to land your message in Gmail’s Promotions tab instead of in the actual inbox of the person you’re reaching out to. This drastically decreases the likelihood that your pitch will actually be read by the person you sent it to.
Seriously, if you ever want to hide a dead body, stash it on the 3rd page of Google search results, or in the promotions folder of somebody’s Gmail account.
Second, when you use PR software to mass pitch emails the same rules apply as when you’re sending email newsletters – there’s going to be a big ugly “unsubscribe” option for journalists to remove themselves from your list (which they never subscribed to in the first place). That’s weird, impersonal, and indicative of a lazy or incompetent PR rep.
Finally, when you mass pitch reporters…the reporters know. You’re not fooling anyone by customizing the name in the greeting line for each recipient. And reporters like to feel special, like they’re the only one you’re pitching your news to.
I asked Aly Walansky what would make her NOT want to cover a press release. Her response: “If it’s being sent to EVERYONE. What’s the news value in that?”
The Bottom Line: Press Releases Work, But Only When You Work Them Right
Press releases are a valuable, time-tested tool that can be used to generate earned media coverage, increase sales and spread your company’s message – but only if you’re strategic about everything from story identification and development to messaging and pitching. For the best results, avoid relying too much on shiny press release distribution services that are unlikely to deliver the ROI and media coverage that you’re looking for.
Paying attention to detail is absolutely critical, especially when you’re attempting to get national media outlets to cover your news. If you’re sloppy during any part of the process, your efforts can have a negative impact on your brand (and your ability to get media coverage in the future). Or worse, Dan Tynan will mercilessly mock you to his PR friends.
If you’re tired of going the DIY route with your PR and you’re interested in finding out more about the costs of bring in the professionals, click here to download a free copy of our generic proposal and pricing list. If you have any other questions, let us know in the comments below or tweet us @ContentFac.