“What if…?” scenarios are a great way to get the lazy mind to excercise. They help think, what previously might have been considered unthinkable – or just so commonplace and conventional wisdom that you just wouldn’t bother. Press releases are such a largely unquestioned thing. “If you want PR for your firm, write press releases. The more the better, ideally at least one or two every week.” So, or similar, goes the song that at least the majority of US tech companies sing when they hire a European PR agency. They want us to replicate what they do in the States: flood the media with heaps of – let’s face it – useless, meaningless, hollow, fake, gibberish bullshit. Elsewhere on the web there’s a name for that sort of unsolicited messages. It’s called spam.
Trust me, I know what I’m talking about. I’ve heard smart PR officers at tech companies say things like “I know this release won’t get much pickup in Europe, but we need to get this out to the press.” Hell, why? Are they just mindless robots executing commands, no matter how useful or useless, or what? Not to be mistaken, there are many very smart PROs in US companies who actually want and listen to advice their European agency gives them, but why don’t others?
On the other side of the table, there’s us. The PR guys in agencies or at local subsidiaries of those (sometimes not so) far-away companies. We’re usually so busy fending off the rubbish releases that corporate gives us that we don’t really question the ones that we write up ourselves. Sometimes, there’s real news after all, and that must be of interest to someone! So we put time and energy in the announcement, draft, edit and proof read it, submit the copy to the client for review, incorporate his changes and comments, send it for final approval, it sometimes goes through legal and needs to be entirely re-written and when it’s finally ready to hit the inboxes of those really important key journalists, guess what happens? It get’s postponed by a week or five, because the one customer quote in it wasn’t really as approved as the client thought it was. And when it is finally sent out – oh glorious moment of truth! – it gets deleted by the ungrateful journalist who thought it was still rubbish.
Where’s the value?
Why all the effort? Why all that time? What if we abandoned press releases altogether? Would it change anything? What would the value lost be if we actually did forget about press releases? Would we really miss those little nibs of news coverage in 12 lines in the news section of that trade magazine? Would our clients miss them? Would it make our client or company any less relevant, would it impact their reputation? I strongly doubt it. At least I think a huge proportion of the releases sent out daily could be just as well dropped in the bin from the outset, because they carry no value, neither news value nor caloric, for that matter.
The one exception to the rule
Of course there are some instances, when a press release makes good sense. That’s when you have an almost 100% guarantee that it will be picked up by newswires. When a DAX30 or FTSE100 company makes a major announcement, you can be sure it will be read by AP, dpa, AFP, DowJones and whoever editors and passed on over the wire. As many dailies and onlines take their share of fresh “news” from those wires, the release has some value to it. But only as long as you’re big enough, or you have something really cool to say. And I mean REALLY interesting. Everything else is still just rubbish.
Letting people know by other means
“But how do we let the world know that we’re here, that we have something interesting so say, that we have a cool new product, that we’ve found the alchemist formula to make gold out of rocks…?,” you ask. Well, imagine there were no journalists, no press in the old sense of the term. No publishing houses that pay skilled writers to write articles about things they think are of interest to readers that pay for copies of printed dead trees that carry colourful pages of advertising that make for even more dead trees but bring in the money to pay the publisher and the skilled writer. Nothing of that sort. Not even online. Imagine that. How would people find out what’s interesting to THEM?
Note the words “find out”. Yes, people want to find out. They want answers to their questions. How do they get those answers? They search! They use Google. That simple! That’s where your company needs to be. On Google and all the other search engines. Of course you could pay for being on Google by buying AdWords, but be honest, how often have you clicked on those Google ads yourself? People want the answers straight from the horses’ mouth, from a trusted horse that is. And which horse would you trust your ride on? Which oracle’s answers to your questions would you trust?
In a world without press releases, it’s all about trusting relationships. About trustworthy content that does not come disguised in sleek, toned-down, corporate gobbledygook but just as the author meant it to sound.
Just for the sake of explanation, let me give you an example of the importance of relationships from my work with – you guessed it – journalists. In my work, the best response from journalists comes when they have known me for a while (Hey, that’s already a good reason to hire a PR person!) and when I tell them a story about my clients and what makes my clients special. To their readers, not to the journalists themselves.
I work in tech and digital media PR. In Germany that’s not the area where you get a lot of spontaneous inquiries from journalists. You have to earn their attention. With good stories, genuinely interesting interview partners, and with a pitch with no strings attached. If they happen to like your story the moment you call, great! If they have a different agenda for today, fine too! If they know you, they’ll be open to listen to you again next time – or even call you when they have a story coming up that your client would add an interesting angle to. It’s all about relationships. Press releases don’t carry relationships. So why rely on them to “get ink”?
So who should you build trusting relationships with?
In a world without press, and without press releases, your audience would still be looking for answers on the web. If there’s no press to carry your story and make it findable, you’ll have to take care of that bit yourself. Publish! Blog! Talk about yourself, what you’re up to, what bothers you, what your plans are. Let the people looking for answers get to know you better. That’s the first bit.
The second, and even more important part is: Talk about your customers, your clients and their problems. And how you solve them. You have a great product? Talk about how it solves its buyer’s problems. You sell services? Let your audience know what they can achieve by giving you their custom. You help THEM find answers to THEIR problems.
Thirdly: Listen. Listen hard. And even harder. Because only by understanding the problems and questions of your peers, customers, prospects, etc., you will be able to give good answers. Good answers are not “developed” in positioning workshops or messaging sessions. Good answers are not mission statements and don’t fit on powerpoint slides. Good answers originate in listening to the question, understanding it, checking it against the sounding board of your own experience, and giving it back in the words that the asker understands.
Respect the rules of the bargain
Trusted relationships online are based on a bargain. As long as the asker gets a good answer and feels that it comes from genuine experience and good will, no strings attached, he or she will give you their trust. It’s a give and get game. If you’re good at giving answers, you might even get money in return. If you ask for the money up front, they’ll turn their backs on you and you lose. Not only their trust, but also their respect.
In a world without press releases, there is still plenty of opportunity to let those with questions know you have the answers. Or at least one they will agree to come by. Publish! Blog! With no strings attached. You’ll get attention, more questions and honest feedback in return. You may as well take a few punches when you give a bad answer. But hey, as long as you admit you’ve made a mistake and learnt from it in the form of a better answer, you might even get their money. Isn’t that worth trying?