Mar 29, 2016 / by Jim Dougherty

According to a survey of the releases distributed by (a certain PR firm) on one day: 78 percent of public relations people spend extra money to dress up their releases with printed letterheads and color…the 78 percent broke down into 34 percent on a simple black letterhead, 16 percent on a one-color letterhead, and 28 percent on a letterhead with two or more colors. – Richard Toohey, writing in Public Relations Quarterly, Fall 1972

If you can conclude anything from the passage above it’s the quality of problems for communication professionals has changed in the last 40 years. Our limits today are of attention rather than of resource, and press releases are one of many different communication channels that you have to deal with. Yet one problem remains evergreen: how to best communicate our message to our publics.

PR has an optics problem that disadvantages press releases further. A lot of communication is viewed negatively or as “spin”…and with justification. In a 2012 study of medical research press releases, 25 percent were determined to be embellished. CFO (2015) reports that ambiguity in financial PR often correlates to poor performance. Spin is something that the public is increasingly skeptical of, and this impacts the reputation of all communication professionals.

In 2016, communication has many more moving parts. What I want to do in this post is focus on how people are using press releases most effectively in 2016.

1. Brutal Honesty

Leanne Tritton (2012) of IMG recommends “brutal honesty” when it comes to press releases. She runs her content through a one-question filter for newsworthiness:

“Is your news remotely interesting to the audience of the publication you are sending it to?”

The lens that she recommends asking this question is through the eyes of a journalist (or influencer). Will this be something that will be interesting to their audiences, or will a press release be seen as tone-deaf (or worse)?

Marie Overfor (2012) adds that perception of quality extends to tone and style. A “boring” or jargon-filled release isn’t going to do you any favors with a journalist or influencer, even if the topic itself is high interest for their audience (Shopify concurs).

2. Availability/Perception of Availability

Twenty years ago, PRSA’s John Elsasser (1994) wrote that it is incumbent for businesses to make contacts available for follow up, lamenting the habit of Silicon Valley companies to send press releases on Eastern Standard Time and not to be available for business until Pacific Standard Time. Of course email and social media have changed the ways and the hours that we are available in this way.

CBS News also recommends including quotes from key individuals in your press releases, a practice that Amazon does quite effectively.

3. Empathy for your audience(s)


Steve Radick of Cramer-Kasselt (2014) writes that the entire customer journey is oftentimes ignored by communication professionals. Instead we focus precisely where we want to interject ourselves to best accommodate our agenda. He elaborates:

“Your customers don’t care about your title, your organizational chart, your P&L or which of their agencies is managing which channel. They just expect you to move seamlessly and consistently from channel to channel and device to device.”

Joe Eichner takes that thought to the next step by considering the audience of a journalist or an influencer, saying that we tend to overgeneralize when pitching messages to these professionals. He suggests considering the question:

“How can we add value to a journalist’s work and help them do their job?”

4. A/B Test


How do you A/B test a press release? Leslie Nicol of CIN and Maine Desk (2015) offers a pretty innovative way to do this: with your subscriber list.

Rather than drafting a press release and hoping for the best, you can rely on your own customers and advocates to give you feedback about what is interesting to them. And you could also cite statistics from your testing when pitching to a journalist or influencer to substantiate how this will be high interest to their readers.

5. Boilerplate


Tom Gable of Gable PR (2015) points out an overlooked aspect of press releases: the boilerplate. So much effort is expended to optimize the headline for attention that few people pay appropriate attention to the boilerplate, where keys aspects of the company are communicated to the journalist/influencer.

Here’s Gable’s insight as to how some PR professionals craft their boilerplate section:

“Many companies think of the boilerplate as a dumping ground for unsubstantiated claims of leadership, professional jargon and copy from marketing materials.”

How you communicate yourself to the world is important. Gable recommends keeping your boilerplate short, clear and accessible to anyone who reads it.

6. Channels


Steve Radick (2014) demonstrates that many modern PR firms are restructuring to accommodate the reality of paid media, earned media, owned media, shared media and omni-channel media.

His point is simply that PR, communications and marketing without embracing the realities of channel distribution models is disadvantaged. Radick says this in a straightforward fashion:

“PR is no longer about just getting ‘ink’ in print or pixels. It’s about developing multi-channel relationships with a variety of stakeholders. It means learning more about paid media and how to incorporate those costs into budgets.”

7. Imagine You’re a Boutique


Verne Harnish of Gazelles, Inc. (2015) recommends imagining your PR as having distinct wholesale and retail operations. At the wholesale level, you might be doing research on journalists and influencers (using the Cision media database, perhaps) and finding opportunities to share your message to an amenable crowd.

At the retail level are your touch points, your outreach. Compartmentalizing these functions isn’t just an abstraction: Harnish recommends tailoring press releases and pitches on the “retail” side based upon the research conducted by the “wholesale”operation.

8. Chillax

TJ Roach of Purdue University (2013) recommends eliminating any impediment to a journalist or influencer actioning your press release…. including the elimination of embargoes. His insight makes a lot of sense:

“News outlets process too much information to have time to keep track of embargoes. Unless you are offering them a newsworthy exclusive, most editors will discard an embargoed release.”

Substitute embargo for anything that inconveniences a journalist or influencer: flowery language, voluminous writing, jargon, acronyms. Roach’s point is that by removing as many barriers as possible, the likelihood of publication increases.


Melissa Kelz Ben-Yoseph of KELZ PR (2016) posits an increasingly pondered question: are press releases still important? Her conclusion isn’t explicit, confirming what many communication professionals believe: it’s complicated.

Press releases aren’t as useful of a tool as when Ivy Lee convinced the Pennsylvania Railroad to get ahead of their story with a prepared statement. Fast forward 100 years and there are so many press releases distributed that you are disadvantaged by sheer numbers relative to the journalists and influencers who might action your release. Ben-Yoseph’s point (and the point of this piece) is that the odds that your press releases will be acted upon and result in media mentions will be increased by deliberate, pragmatic planning to make them as effective as possible. Press releases will never be the blue ocean that they were in 1908 or the gateway that they were in 1972, but they are still an effective tool for a communication professional’s toolkit.

And if your press release is less than optimized take heart: Henk Pander Maat (2007) found that promotional language in press releases found its way into media mentions up to 20 percent of the time. Meaning that sometimes it’s better to have great timing than a perfect pitch.

Strengthen Your PR_Sep2015-650x300

Images via Pixabay: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

Cited in this post:

Ben-Yoseph, M. K. (2016). Are Press Releases Still Important?. Plastic Surgery Practice, 26(2), 14.

Eichner, J. (2015). Put the Press Release in its Place. Communication World, 1.

Elsasser, J. (1994). What reporters really think of press releases. Public Relations Tactics, 1(6), 3.

Gable, T. (2015). Great Beginnings and Endings. Public Relations Tactics, 22(2), 14.

Harnish, V. (2015). 5 Ways to Get More From Your PR. Fortune, 171(3), 38.

M., H. (2015). Murky Press Releases Conceal Poor Results. Cfo, 31(3), 15.

Maat, H. P. (2007). HOW PROMOTIONAL LANGUAGE IN PRESS RELEASES IS DEALT WITH BY JOURNALISTS. Journal Of Business Communication, 44(1), 59-95.

Misrepresentation of randomized controlled trials in press releases and news coverage: a cohort study. (2012). Canadian Journal of Respiratory Therapy, 48(3), 32-32 1p.

Nicol, L. H. (2015). How to Write a Press Release. Nurse Author & Editor (Blackwell), 25(1), 1-4 4p.

Overfors, M. (2012). Write better news releases: 6 common mistakes and how to avoid (or fix) them. Public Relations Tactics, 19(2), 10.

Radick, S. (2014). Take control of the mix. Communication World, 31(4), 18-20.

Roach, T. J. (2013). Pitching Stories. Rock Products, 116(2), 38.

Toohey, R. (1972). More Ways to Stretch Your Press Release Budget. Public Relations Quarterly, 17(2), 32.

Tritton, L. (2012). How to make your press releases work for you. Building Design, (2004), 22.

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About Jim Dougherty

Jim Dougherty is a featured contributor to the Cision Blog and his own blog, leaderswest. His areas of interest include statistics, technology, and content marketing. When not writing, he is likely reading, running, playing guitar or being a dad. PRSA member. Find him on Twitter @jimdougherty.