Alien vs. Predator: The Press Release Battles the Blog*

The nearness to death of the old-fashioned press release. The remaining half-life of the blogging phenomenon. Among people in the PR business, speculation on these questions now generates exceptional passion. Thoughtful PR professionals look through a glass, darkly, to discern the future shape of their industry — and whether it has a future at all. Journalists and bloggers are part of this conversation, too.

The communications assembly-line that has been taken for granted for nearly a century has a plague of monkey-wrenches, and a lengthening queue of engineers who think they can fix it. The clients have started to notice. “There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.”

In the past month, I’ve read at least a dozen blog posts about the utility of the press release vs. the blog. Tom Foremski, the “Silicon Valley Watcher,” who I’ve quoted on this topic before, started a recent ruckus with his Russ Meyer-inspired Die! Press Release! Die! Die!” :

Press releases are nearly useless. They typically start with a tremendous amount of top-spin, they contain pat-on-the-back phrases and meaningless quotes. Often they will contain quotes from C-level executives praising their customer focus. They often contain praise from analysts, (who are almost always paid or have a customer relationship.) And so on…

Press releases are created by committees, edited by lawyers, and then sent out at great expense through Businesswire or PRnewswire to reach the digital and physical trash bins of tens of thousands of journalists.

This madness has to end. It is wasted time and effort by hundreds of thousands of professionals.

Foremski isn’t and wasn’t a PR guy. He was a reporter who became a blogger. Kevin Dugan has been a blogger for longer that Foremski has. His tagline includes the fact that he’s been blogging since 2002, which in blog-years makes him Colonial Williamsburg. The title of his response post is “Tom Foremski is Wrong.”:

EVERYONE trying to nail this coffin shut and bury it is missing the point.

It’s the content, not the format, that’s the problem.

Change the format by adding tags or taking an entirely new approach and crap will still be shoveled into reporters’ email/voicemail/landmail inboxes. GUARANTEED. (Not to mention, tagged blocks of copy ensure content can be used out of context.)

(snip)If press releases are dead, someone should tell CBS. CBS issued a news release when they filed suit against Howard Stern. This news release was also used in a news story…which is how I found it in the first place.

One thing we do agree with Foremski on is this quote: “Things cannot go along as they are…business as usual while mainstream media goes to hell in a hand basket.”

But blaming the current state of PR on the news release is like blaming Enron on faulty calculators.

Steve Rubell, a blog expert recently hired by Edelman, posted on his Edelman-independent site Micro Persuasion:

Tom Foremski says: “Die! Press release! Die! Die! Die!”.

Kevin Duggan responds: “It’s the content, not the format, that’s the problem.”

Enough! Everything is a press release.

(snip)(E)veryone’s blogging for a reason. Many of us, although not all, are selling something and when we blog it’s released not just to the public but to the press as well. So can we stop the blog vs. press release debate? Everything is a press release, even if it’s not formatted that way.

Rubell’s got a point, but he assumes blogs have taken up permanent residence on the media landscape. If you believe Daniel Gross of Slate, however, blogging might just be a fad. He sees telltale signs of a dot-com style bubble about to burst, such as:

The Excited Dinosaurs: Big, unwieldy media conglomerates—the types whose large-circulation magazines always publish trend stories six months too late, like Time Warner—are enthralled with this hot new niche. Last October, in a deal that put blogs on the map as a business, Time Warner paid a reported $25 million for Weblogs, Inc., a group of blogs cobbled together by tech-culture-Barnum Jason Calacanis. This week, the Wall Street Journal reported that Time Warner is poised to introduce Office Pirates. The bloggy site is run by Mark Golin, the brains behind Maxim‘s U.S. edition. A spokeswomen for Dodge, the “exclusive automotive sponsor of the site,” is calling it a “daily blend of funny videos, strange news and downloads, rolled up in an office-themed wrapper.” Apparently, Time Warner executives are not aware that there’s a place online where you can go to see pictures of large-breasted women and read dirty jokes, without having to look at Dodge ads—it’s called the Internet.

“Conversational media consultant” Amy Gahran tells Gross and anyone who believes blogs are a blip to “Get a Grip.” Gross has set up a straw man, defining blogs narrowly as ad-supported entertainment/information destinations. That misses the point of what the blog phenomenon represents, Gahran says:

Inevitably, blogs will be superceded by whatever else is cool, usable, and new in conversational media. That’s fine. Conversational media was always the bigger deal.

But in the meantime, before blogs evolve into the next big step in conversational media, don’t underestimate their value — especially their business value.

Yes, it’s true that directly monetizing blogs is problematic. That’s why, so far, I’ve steered clear of “blog networks” and similar schemes. I believe that can work, but it takes a ton of effort, skill, and time, and it probably can’t be done on a massive scale. (I may be wrong about that, but so far that’s what the marketplace has shown, I think.)

However, the true business value of blogs — and the reason why every company should be hiring people skilled in conversational media to monitor relevant conversations — is that blogs can directly and effectively support every business goal while strengthening the relationships upon which all business depends.

In short, stop viewing blogs as “bells and whistles” or side projects, and start viewing them as core systems.

(snip)

Do you worry about whether your telephones and computers are direct revenue producers? Do you calculate the ROI on the door to your office? Probably not. Would you ever consider doing business without either? Yeah, I’d like to see you try.

Behind the blog hype (and yes, there is a lot of blog hype), the tools and channels of conversational media are fast becoming as crucial to the fabric of business and the economy as doors and phones.

Points for Amy Gahran. Her re-casting of the blog phenomenon as just one form of “conversational media,” though clunky phraseology, captures what’s really new and what all businesses (including non-profits and governmental agencies) have to start pondering. Is there any business that does not have a relationship with customers, with a market segment? Any government agency that doesn’t need to communicate? Any non-profit that doesn’t need to explain its mission to its supporters? It’s hard to think of one. These entitities are already in a “conversation” with customers. The only question is whether the conversation is productive and satisfying. Blogs facilitate conversations.

I have a hard time completely giving up on the press release. In its ideal form, it is a highly efficient structure to convey information. Without realizing it, I learned how to write a press release when I learned how to write a standard news story, from Professor James Spalding of UC Berkeley’s journalism school. He taught me to write lean news stories that emphasized clarity over style. In my natural state, I express myself in torrents of style and wordplay, so it was difficult to learn what Professor Spalding taught, but exhilarating once I mastered it.

I got further training in this craft at City News Service, where most stories we filed were between 4-8 paragraphs with no fluff. The optimal press release is just like that. It should not read like “hype.” It is news, written like a news story. It should use active, direct and clear English to ensure client messages will be understood quickly and easily. It follows the reverse pyramid structure, which ensures clients’ messages will be presented in order of priority.

A good press release is like a window — a clear view of the idea, concept or product that is its subject. It’s a classic form. Through the final weeks of my previous PR career, when everything around me seemed painful and chaotic, I still found a kind of cobbler’s peace in editing my staff’s press release drafts so they measured up to Professor Spalding’s ideal of a news story. Cutting a 10-line lede down to four lines…ahh, so satisfying. Foremski correctly describes the bloated, unreadable documents tagged as “press releases” that too many PR agencies lazily tolerate. Bad press releases diminish their own value. But a well-written, well-constructed release can be effective.

My problem with news releases is not the format. It’s that so much of the effort put into them is wasted. Though accessible, readers usually are not directed to them. They are neither organized nor presented in a way that would engage anyone but a reporter doing research for a story. The distribution of most press releases is woefully off-target (as Bad Pitch Blog documents), and even if you get your release to the proper target, you’ve got to penetrate a thick membrane of crap detection. But the people who really might be interested — the audience that you’re hoping the news media will help you reach — rarely get to see them.

I’m thinking of one major LA corporation that has fascinating information buried in the “news” section of its website. The home page is just company boilerplate — a brochure with hyperlinks. What would make someone come back to that company’s website repeatedly is news, but the news takes too long to find. On such sites, past press releases are archived instead of presented, even though it seems obvious to me that potential customers might want to read some of them.

I think this company would like its potential customers to get in the habit of checking their website on a regular basis. It’s within their power to become publishers of information more relevant to their market segment than any other news source. And not just publish it — get into a dialogue about it, with other smart people who are equally passionate about the subject. How fascinating this could be. How dramatic. How fun.

The challenge is this: As Foremski and others have noted, PR people can’t help but talk in PR-speak. Hype. The engaged reader of the company’s new “conversation” will quickly click off if it feel too much like hype. It would be better, ideally, if the conversation was run by another type of employee, a decision-maker or someone schooled in the trade, rather than someone who only learned enough to flack it. In a conversation, it shouldn’t feel like you’re driving home “key messages, ” or steering the conversation back to the main point, or all the other tricks PR people preach in media training. If it’s supposed to be a conversation, it’s got to have the freedom from boundaries of a conversation.

Can a PR person, or some other kind of consultant, teach professional staff at a company, non-profit or government agency, to write in a conversational way? Can the employee take the time to do it? Can upper management get comfortable knowing these conversations are, in a sense, defining the company and becoming one of the primary ways in which the company interacts with the world?

That’s how clients should be thinking about these issues. If you’re a PR person, you’re intensely focused on a) if there’s still a role for you in the world of the future and b) what’s the new state-of-the-art that I need to know to stay relevant?

But your clients shouldn’t spend a moment worrying about you. Companies, government agencies and non-profits need to reflect on themselves, and how their potential and current customers want to interact with them. I don’t think there is a state-of-the-art yet, but there’s a lot to explore and think about.

My advice to executives is, don’t delegate this journey to your PR department. Get online yourself. Mix with the folks. Read blogs about your favorite football team, or political party, or hobby. Read blogs written by people who violently disagree with your political views, and read the comments, too. If you’re an attorney, read law professor blogs. If you go to church, read God blogs. Read blogs being written by citizens of Iraq and by our soldiers. Read blogs from New Orleans. In other words, blogs where something important is at stake to the writer and their readers. Get to understand things like syndication and tagging by doing it yourself. Don’t make decisions or commit money to a new strategy until you’ve hung out in this new space for awhile and can start to conceive of where you might fit, what kind of conversation you are ready to conduct.

Once you’ve achieved that level of understanding, that’s when to bring in someone to help shape your online presence for you. But don’t let them get too far in front of you, and don’t let them sell you a black box. It’s got to be uniquely yours.

Press releases, dead or alive? Blogs, on the way up or down? These questions exist because communications are in such flux — and because money and careers are on the line. But they are distracting. The real question for most people in business is, How do I create an authentic version of myself and my enterprise on the Web? And how does that change my business?

*(P.S. I re-read this post later this morning and did some editing to it.)

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