In the early 1900s, Ivy Lee invented a method for his rail company clients to distribute information about accidents to reporters quickly rather than depending on rumors to write their stories. This “official line” was probably the very first public relations effort for a large company and soon others joined in, distributing memos via post, railways, and couriers to a single audience — journalists. Later, fax machines sped this process, followed by dedicated, subscription-based terminals such as Lexus-Nexus, and the audience expanded to include investors and other companies. The founders of modern public relations began to learn the art of the release and the effect they can have.
Now the distribution has moved online. Web browsers introduced filtering on sites like Google News, Google Trends, and PR Web. Adoption of RSS (Real Simple Syndication) allows anyone, including software programs, to skim and digest this “river of news” or republish it.
The audience has expanded to include financial markets, employees and end customers. Companies must write for the journalist as well as the layperson surfing the Web or the blogger read by thousands. Releases are now part of a filtered, tagged, skimmed world where the goal is to avoid joining the “dark Internet” long enough to get attention. A recent study called the Arketi Web Watch Survey found 60 percent of reporters spend more than 20 hours a week on the Internet with 89 percent using that time to find story ideas and 84 percent using blogs as a primary or secondary source for new stories.
So the release has changed. Will you thrive with them? Here are some tips:
Accept the new audience reality. Some of the biggest benefits will come from the non-journalistic audience, such as employees, strategic allies and investors. But for all of these human consumers, one of the most important members of your audience is the search engines. While few would recommend that you turn your release into a sales letter, referring to offers and linking to them has become commonplace and can bring readers closer to your company buying cycle. If your PR company says not to change how you’re writing releases, you should question their awareness of today’s Web.
Learn the distribution networks. These services can make the difference between the trashcan and the top of Google news. Each has specific requirements and audiences, and there are times when you want to distribute different releases to each.
Swallow your corporate ego. Old press releases were egotistic by nature. Now readers are intolerant of such messages. They want facts relevant to their interests. Unlike previous days where the audience knew exactly who you were, you must now assume people don’t have a clue. This means your headline and the first couple of sentences in your release (often called the excerpt) have to be attractive to the busy information consumer. Consider scrapping the lengthy “about us” footer in favor of a shorter one with a call to action.
Get familiar with tagging. You must tag your releases so that they weave into the world of feeds, blogs and social networks. This means you have to understand the requirements of such networks. An untagged release may be ignored by Technorati searches, for example, the biggest source of blogworthy content. In addition, if journalists are filtering releases based on tags, you need to make sure yours gets through.
Ask yourself what you want to accomplish. How will people search for this information? Are you after brand awareness or marketing a specific offer? A release becomes a Web page in the archives, which are visited by search engines for years to come. Having quality linkages in these archives can provide a very long tail of benefits.
Include high-quality links. Establish Web links inside your release to specific pages on your site which, when paired, enhance the message and possibly lead people closer to talking about (or buying) your product. In addition to the human clicking that may happen, this helps the search engines index your site well for the theme you have in mind.
Edit 8/14/13: Press releases have gone through some dramatic changes since this article was written in 2009. Links FROM press releases in a distribution network work far less well for SEO than they did in 2009.
Forget the “clip book” as a performance measure. The clip book was one way that PR agencies “proved” their worth by gathering press clippings from newspapers that “picked up” a story. Since journalists make up only a part of the press release distribution now, what matters for most companies is the amount of traffic, leads and buying customers a PR effort generates.
Caution: Discuss with me before trying to use press releases for SEO. Much has changed. I can steer you in the right direction.
Implement a PR Strategy in Seven Days
Press Release Template
Press Release Builder
Writing a Press Release & Free Publicity for Your Website
Creative New Media PR 101
When PR Comes Skidding Round the Curve
The Complete Idiot’s Guide to PR Ethics
The Danger of Regurgitated Press Releases
The Press Release is Dead and Thriving
Branding Your Company with the Press
Trailblazing PR’s Newest Frontier
Press Releases Are Not a PR Strategy
The full text of Edward Bernay’s book “Propeganda”