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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Why nobody should read a press release ever again

Just now I got an email from a junior at a PR company. He'd obviously been given the job of double-checking their email database. His email enquired, with a baldness that must have been unintentional, "is this the right address or do you just ignore everything that's sent to you?" I have so far resisted replying to him and saying that the answer to both questions is yes. Every day I get 50 emails from PRs that go straight into the trash unread. This is not just because I'm a cynical old hack. Anything that is addressed to me specifically and contains some piece of information that's of interest to me, and not just anybody, I read. The rest get a scan of a subject line and then I pull the lever.

It wasn't always thus. When press releases arrived on paper they were actually read before being thrown away. They were sent to media outlets in the hope that these media outlets would choose to publish their contents. Media outlets read them because they often contained interesting information. When they began arriving on email two things changed: 1) They were distributed far and wide with no thought of cost; 2) their contents were no longer of any interest to the media outlets to whom they were addressed. Press releases used to have a relevance because they meant that for a while the media knew something that not everybody else did. That is no longer the case. At the precise instant that the PR tells me The Flaming Lips are going to release a new record then that same information is going to be available to, at the very least, the guy who runs the Flaming Lips fan site, for whom it's the most important announcement since the Armistice. All the people who care most about this news will know it already. When you send out any piece of information on email you are effectively publishing it. You're putting it on your corporate website, for instance, where people who are interested will find it. You're putting it in a place where people can pull it towards them. Why should you expect a media organisation to fulfil their old role of pushing it towards people? If the media are interested in that information they will link to it. If they're not they'll ignore it. So why is anyone still bombarding me - and thousands of other people - with this information? Could that be because a client's paying them to? And the money that they're paying the PR with, is that the money those same clients previously spent on advertising?


  1. AndrewG8:34 pm

    Even more insidious is the political press release, which is simply an expanded version of something that's already been leaked to friendly journalists.

  2. It's even more dispiriting when said email that has been sent out to 20,000 other recipients starts...

    "Hey mate!" so many of them do.

  3. If I ever send out a group email, and it's rare that I do, I begin by apologising for sending out a group email. Imagine if press releases all began with an apology. Wouldn't that be nice?

  4. Sadly, however, the standard press release does work. You only need to look at how stories are covered by different media outlets to see that, more often than not, the content is lifted straight from the press release as per Nick Davies, Flat Earth News. Perhaps the solution is to stop using email!

  5. But as PR has changed, so has journalism. Like spam, you can bet that if you send out 10,000 copies of a press release half a dozen will print it, possibly verbatim and, if you're really lucky, with all those in-text links.

    There are thousands of websites that exist simply by recycling press releases. Some of them are even in Google News.

    Churnalism on the web is an arms race. If you can print ten per cent of what your competitor is printing you're beating your competitor. If that means reprinting press releases, then so be it.

  6. There's something different about getting them by email With post, even though before you opened it you knew it was going in the bin, but it wasn't nearly so invasive. I feel email press releases are an invasion of my personal space, like someone standing at my desk and shouting something at me that I'm not interested in, without asking my permission to do so.

  7. If you don't want to receive them, why don't you just email back each time and ask politely to be taken off their mailing list?

  8. Paul K12:54 pm

    There's something here about the personal, isn't there? If you worked in an editorial office back in the days, press releases were probably addressed to the person who had your job a year or two before. Nowadays, it's either you,l or nothing. A PR can't send an email to the the features editor, unless they have their name - so EVERY press release has a name, every press release arrives with your personal mail. No vetting, no redistribution by an editorial assistant - it's a real intrusion into your personal space.

  9. I am still a bit confused by all this! You all say you don't want these press releases, so why not just block them? These days there is no reason you should receive any emails you don't want on an ongoing basis.

    I suspect you do give them all a passing glance, in which case it probably justifies the PR people sending them out.

  10. @Simon you can't block them because they come from so many different sources. And sometimes there are people who have things you do want to read - the personal useful stuff like interviews - who also send out press releases.

    However the whole model is broken. Email is now spam. The attempt to get coverage by sending a press release to absolutely everyone is like a car manufacturer trying to find someone who makes brake linings by sending out a tender to every company in the area - including every restaurant, builder, and supermarket. It simply isn't targeted; it's the opposite. What could be personal is in fact made totally impersonal. PR: broken when it uses email.

  11. Hi there Simon. In the universe I inhabit, rubbish press releases are sent out from email addresses that are not monitored, and the senders spend zero effort on maintaining their databases so even if you did find someone to contact to remove your name from the list, there's no guarantee the removal would be actioned.

  12. In my original post I said that I got 50 PR emails a day. That was just a guess. Today I counted. There have been 78 so far. And those are just the ones coming to me. I can't imagine what it must be like for the Showbiz Desk at the Daily Mail.

    Somebody read it and said, with an injured tone, "so how are acts supposed to get their name out there?" Well, I suppose they face the same challenges in getting their name out there as the man running my local barber or somebody - let's say me - running a small publishing company.

    Having worked in media for a long time, I have realised there is one thing you do not do. Send out a press release. You might target one very specific media outlet with one very specific message and you would bear in mind what was in it for them rather than what was in it for you. It's tiresome and difficult, I know, but so, I suppose, is making music. Welcome to the future.