In the direct marketing world we often joke about being called "junk mailers" and say instead that we deliver, "targeted, personalized solicitations." But we all know why people think of direct mail as junk mail. It's because no matter how well crafted and targeted the best of direct mail can be, it's drowned out by the deluge of untargeted, poorly produced, creatively devoid mail pieces that flood our households. It doesn't make direct mail bad as a tactic, but it lowers the effectiveness and perceptions of the entire industry.
The exact same thing is happening today to the PR world because of the press release.
The History Of The Release
The press release was created as news about a product or service. Notice the operative word, "news." It wasn't created for promotion or selling people on an idea, but to inform journalists about interesting facts regarding what was happening at a company.
What's more, the release was not something everyone got. It was a document that was distributed one-on-one to journalists or influencers that either the PR expert had cultivated a relationship with or who requested this information. It was rarely, if ever, sent blind.
Further, it was never intended to be the first line of the pitch. Indeed, it was often little more than a follow-up to the true work of picking up the phone to talk to a journalist about why the story mattered. After all, it's called public "relations" for a reason — it's about relationships, not promotions.
How Email Created Laziness
Admittedly, people have always bent the rules and there was always "that" PR rep who just mailed the release out to a hundred journalists. I'm not suggesting that PR is an exact science here. But generally people played fairly and there was a true symbiosis between the PR rep and the journalist. Then email happened and all bets were off.
Email made it possible for the PR practitioner to blast out a message to every known journalist in a database with a click of a button. And if 1% or 2% of them ran the story, the PR rep had a win. It was easy, it was fast and it was cheap.
It's also direct marketing at it's absolute worst.
Think about it: Would you just send a direct mail solicitation out for Viagra to everyone in a 5 ZIP code area of the US? No! It would be a waste of time, a waste of money, a waste of effort and may even offend a bunch of people along the way.
Direct marketers understand that if we don't target, we truly are "junk mail." And the best PR practitioners know the exact same thing is true in public relations.
Promotion Instead Of News
At the same time that email blasts of releases were become the norm, came a change in the content. This was no longer a relationship, after all. This was pure email promotion. So the tone of releases changed. Certain words started to slip in. "Outstanding." "Best-of-Breed." "Super-Amazing-Awesome!!!"
Suddenly the press release really was a direct piece. Even box mailers were created and freebies were sent out. It was if many PR agencies suddenly became B-to-B direct mailers and were trying to sell their story, rather than pitch a story.
Now mind you, I don't think this is a bad thing. I love direct marketing. But when it totally replaces public relations, then you and I have a problem here. Because I love public relations too. And a box mailer sent out to every journalist on a mailing list is not PR.
The Debate Over The Release
Simon Dumenco's piece over at Ad Age has sparked a pretty vigorous debate on this subject and it's high time it happened. I'm a huge advocate of PR. I think it's a vastly undervalued component of the marketing pie. But laziness is killing both the perception of the discipline and the effectiveness of the programs.
I've been lucky enough to learn PR from some of the best and brightest in the industry — both big names and rank and file. And from these relationships I've learned that PR is much more than events and promos and getting your product on the Today Show. It's the hard work of getting to know the people who can influence your story and being as much a help to them as they are a help to you.
Do you regularly feed information to your contacts that have nothing to do with your clients? You should be. Why should they help you if you aren't helping them? And do you try to craft angles on your stories that can actually help them get attention and maybe a promotion? Why not? They have a life too.
The debate shouldn't be over whether the press release is dead. It's not. The debate is over how the press release should be used. And I, for one, think there are plenty of direct marketers out here already.