Why press releases suck

Jan 25, 2024

I’m pretty sure that if American statesman Benjamin Franklin ever tried his hand at PR, he would have said that the only certainties in life were death, taxes and clients asking him to write press releases.

To be fair, the last bit – about press releases – might have been semi-relevant even as recently as a couple decades ago.

But when a new client asks (and they always ask) if I can write a press release about FILL IN THE BLANK, I inevitably have to find a nice way to say that press releases suck.

As in, not only ineffective but counterproductive. Often even perversely self-harming.

Sure, press releases can still be useful (more on this in a bit). But for the vast majority of companies, non-profits, and individuals, a press release is worse than useless.

First, what a press release is. Traditionally, a release is used to announce something potentially newsworthy to members of the news media with the aim that journalists will then publish or broadcast stories about it. Releases also serve as a kind of official statement, from which journalists can quote. (This can also come in handy when, for example, the person or company issuing the release doesn’t want to actually have to talk with journalists.)

In plainer terms, press releases are bait. With a press release, you’re essentially trying to entice the media to cover whatever you’re pitching. It’s a lot like telling journalists, “This would make for a good story, don’t ya think?”

Trouble is, issuing a press release generally means sending it to multiple news media outlets, often to several editors, producers or reporters. In other words, you’re effectively throwing something at the wall and hoping it sticks.

This can be fine if the news is so super-gigantically big that most media on the planet would wind up covering it regardless of genuine importance (aka, whatever Elon Musk ate for breakfast). Or, if yours is a publicly traded company, you are likely legally obligated to issues releases in certain circumstances.

For the rest of us, there are several big reasons not to use press releases.

First, journalists, maybe even more than most humans, want to feel special. Blasting out a press release to everyone does the opposite of making them feel special. Plus (remember the “hoping it sticks” metaphor?), it undermines one of journalism’s most cherished obsessions: the scoop.

Journalists are intensely competitive. Getting the story – any story – first is hardwired in their brains. This is true whether the story involves the fate of humankind or a local man who taught a pet squirrel to waterski.

Second, with the arrival of the internet, every nitwit with a computer or smartphone can “issue a press release.” And they often do.  Which means journalists are fairly swamped daily – even hourly – with all manner of digital missives purporting to be of supreme importance to their readers, viewers and listeners.

From this deluge, journalists must select what merits coverage.

Press releases by their nature imply that the journalist receiving it is but one of who-knows-how-many others getting the same thing. Hardly a recipe for feeling special.

So, if not a press release, how should one pitch ideas to journalists?

First, don’t call it a press release. In other words, don’t write your pitch to journalists in a way that makes it look like a press release.  This means omitting the obvious words “FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE” as well as avoiding headlines, datelines and any of the other conventions of press releases, which are themselves imitations of how stories issued by news services such as The Associated Press and Reuters are formatted.

Assuming what’s left is a succinct and interesting description of your story idea, you need only turn it into a fairly normal email. One to two paragraphs, three tops, should be enough to convey the gist of your story idea. In the subject line, you might use the headline or something similar. Or simply “Story idea.”

If the journalist you’re pitching is a stranger, address him, her or they accordingly. You needn’t be too formal, but don’t be weirdly chummy.

If you’re offering the story exclusively to a journalist, say as much (the rules of if and how to offer exclusives to journalists will be the topic of another blog post). Offering dibs on a story can often greatly up your chances of coverage.

Lastly, make sure you include any relevant contact info, including cell numbers.

You’ll be pleasantly surprised how a well-written personalized pitch will stand out even among a blizzard of press releases fairly screaming “Cover me! Cover me!”