What is a press release, and do they even matter in 2023?
The internet moves fast. It's hard to tell what is still important, and what is a relic of a bygone era.
We're going to break down the definition of a press release, its purpose, and whether it is still important in the modern PR landscape. Plus, we asked a few experts what they think about the relevance of press releases and their changing role in how we do communications.
- So, what's the definition of a press release?
- What are press releases used for?
- What do the experts say? We asked industry professionals if press releases are still relevant.
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So, what's the definition of a press release?
A press release is a document outlining some sort of news, put forth by an entity, intended to share that news with the media and the public.
This sounds like a bad definition because it's vague. But really, it is pretty vague. Basically, a company, agency, government, or some other entity will distribute a press release to alert the public in the media that some sort of change is happening.
There are many different types of press releases depending on the type of news to share just a few of the examples include:
- New company launch press release - A company is born!
- New product launch press release - A company releases a new thing.
- Merger/acquisition press release - Companies are consolidating.
- Event press release - Something is about to happen.
- Corporate Social Responsibility press release - A company does something good :)
- Crisis communications/damage control press release - A company does something bad :(
There are plenty of other types of releases, some of them are industry-specific or for particular events and updates. Essentially, you can put out a press release about anything. Whether or not anyone will actually care, that's the big question.
Press release format (what information is in a press release?)
Press releases often follow a pretty specific format. They used to be one page, plain text, and pretty boring. The point wasn't to get and keep attention, necessarily, as much as it was to quickly and efficiently distribute necessary information to journalists.
Yeah, boring. But they also didn't have the speed and resources of the Internet. Often, press releases were faxed or hand-delivered which limited their ability to be personable or interesting.
However, with online newsrooms and press release distribution, press release formats have become a lot more flexible in the last decade or so. Press releases now include beautiful, high-quality digital assets, great quotes, plenty of links, and sometimes even multimedia, like videos and sound bytes. It's not enough to just relate the facts, PR needs to be compelling.
If you'd like more information about what exactly to include in your press release, we have an entire article dedicated to press release formats.
Press release distribution
Press releases can be sent directly to journalists, media, customers, and members of the general public. This is often done through a news distribution service, media lists, social media, email, and the like.
However, there's some controversy about the best method of PR distribution. Sure, the wire services have their role, but there has been a big push towards relationship-based PR distribution in the last few years.
Why? Well, journalists are busy people. They don't necessarily have all the time in the world to be scrolling endlessly through distribution services and press releases that have nothing to do with their audience.
We spoke with journalists and writers about the ways they best want to be pitched, and you can watch that conversation here. But ultimately, when it comes to your PR, keep the media in mind. If your company news has nothing to do with them, don't pitch them. Simple as that.
What are press releases used for?
It's a tiny bit tempting to wonder why we even bother with press releases anymore. They seem like an unnecessary, archaic practice. Don't most journalists prefer emails these days? Why should they have to parse through 500 words of communications jargon just to find out that a water bottle company released a slightly different shade of water bottle?
Here are just a few of the factors that set a press release apart from other forms of communication.
Press releases are still the "primary source" (aka professional and official)
When something is a primary source, that basically means it's the real deal. A journalist would much rather cite a professional press release than, say, an Instagram post. At the end of the day, social media does have its place in business communications, but as far as sending out formal company updates, important news, and high-quality assets? Press releases are still the go-to.
Depending on the type of news you want to release, it may be better to just do a blog post or a social media update. However, things like major company updates, mergers and acquisitions, corporate structural changes, or anything that has any legal weight should always, always be done with a press release. Investors in your company will be very unhappy to learn that they missed a massive update because it was released on TikTok.
Press releases are owned media
This expert says it well:
Press releases help you expand your audience reach well BEYOND that of your "owned" media assets such as your website and social media accounts. You are reaching media outlets and their respective audiences - i.e. millions of readers/viewers who may not otherwise come across your firm or your news story, if not for distributing a press release.
Furthermore, press releases may help your news to get picked up by traditional media outlets for earned media placements, which help build your brand's credibility and authority as a reputable firm in the industry. Many studies have shown that journalism (reported/earned media) is "the most credible source of information" about a topic or brand.
When you put something up on a platform like social media, you don't own that media in the sense that the platform can censor, remove or obfuscate your content at any time. Press releases that you can store on your own newsroom and on your own website carry a level of professionalism and gravity that borrowed media never will.
If you want to learn more about the power and importance of owned content versus hosting your media on another platform, watch our PR Roundtable with Rand Fishkin who has plenty to say on the topic!
Press releases are an institution
This may change one day, but we're not quite at the place where tweets are taken as seriously as curated PR content. And as lightning-quick as social media is, there are still a number of very well-established, industry-leading news distribution services that many journalists and publicists use on a daily basis, and they're specific to press releases. These services have guidelines, expectations, and industry practices that dictate how the services function. This is unlikely to change any time soon.
Press releases provide deeper context than other types of communications
Because of their function as a credible, professional, structured form of communication, the press release is able to dig deeper than, say, your standard social media or blog post. It's much more acceptable and expected to provide plenty of details about the news you're releasing through a press release.
What do the experts say? We asked industry professionals if press releases are still relevant.
Now, don't take it from us because we're kind of in the press release software business. We may have a slight bias, even if we'll never admit to it.
We asked some smart people at the top of their field what they thought about the press release and its changing role in modern communications. Their answers varied.
One expert thinks that press releases are here to stay, but will be adapting with the changing media landscape:
Press releases are still relevant and far more effective when it comes to disseminating helpful information amid a crisis or sparking awareness about major business accomplishments or events. Writing a press release ensures that everyone is on the same page and allows the media to acquire reliable, factual information directly from the source. A press release is easier to verify than a social media post. Press releases guarantee that the message is accurate and genuine. I don't think press releases are going away anytime soon. Instead, it will evolve in tandem with the times. Nowadays, it is usual to see press releases that incorporate numerous varieties of media, such as infographics and video snippets. These aspects modernize the press release, making it web-friendly and appropriate for the digital age.
The traditional press release is no longer as relevant as a dynamic, engaging press release with great visuals and assets.
This journalist-turned-writer had this insight when asked if press releases are still relevant today:
Yes, absolutely. But for them to be relevant, they need to be 100% focused on the business or product they are aiming to promote. And for them to work, they need to get to the right market.
So, for instance, if you are promoting cars, you need to target motoring journalists. If you have a new product that you are launching, you need to find media that will use the story you send them. As an example, a national newspaper (printed and/or online) won’t be likely to run a press release about anything much unless it is newsworthy!
A dedicated health-orientated publication will, though, probably use info from press releases about anything from vitamins to new ideas about soundproofing.
Penny makes a great point because when we talk about their usefulness or efficacy, we have to factor in how press releases are being used. If you draft a beautiful press release but distribute it to absolutely the wrong people, it's entirely ineffective from a communication standpoint. And, now more than ever, it's tempting to just blast your communications to everyone, but this ends up being way more ineffective in the long run than tailoring your communications to the right people.
Press releases still matter, according to this pro, but they are just one piece of the puzzle:
Press releases still hold relevancy, but it’s in different ways than we perhaps learned 5-10 years ago. They are supporting content but not leading content, and placing them on a wire service doesn’t carry the weight in benefits that it once did. We use press releases to curate key messaging and illustrate a prominent announcement, but the emphasis is typically more on the tactics for how that press release is leveraged. We’re always looking to maximize reach, and that means a more integrated PR and media strategy that includes a press release (sometimes) but doesn’t rely on it solely.
Press releases are simply one piece of the puzzle. Successful PR strategies are ones integrated with social media and marketing strategies. It doesn’t start and end with a press release, but this piece of content supports strategies from various angles — from media relations to website and SEO to social media content and more. We have to start thinking about PR, social media and marketing strategies holistically instead of individually. A press release doesn’t only exist in a successful PR strategy, it can be leveraged across all channels and in ways we weren’t able to in years past.
And one digital PR pro makes a fantastic point about how PR is an institution that likely isn't going anywhere any time soon, but it will need to evolve with the modern comms channels:
The press release is over 100 years old, so it won't be phased out altogether. However, it will likely take a new form over the next five years (as with every technological advancement). What is interesting to me is to witness the development of Web 3.0 and where digital PR sits within this new online world. I'm interested to see how news stories travel and are shared on platforms like the Metaverse, how Digital PR/Comms teams/Journalists can adapt and who will be the frontrunners in this space. We still use press releases (even when social media is a powerful tool) because it safeguards your coverage for long-term brand and presence building. Social media platforms are being developed at a rapid rate, content creators have limited power when it comes to pushing their content to audiences when algorithms change and shift direction every day. There's no doubt that social media is a juggernaut when it comes to Digital PR and can capture audiences' attention like nothing we've seen before. However, long-standing, authoritative publications, that have stood the test of time, built a loyal following and aren't going away anytime soon, provide impactful ROI for PR Managers and Marketing professionals. In a space where there is such a monopoly by the big seven platforms (Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube, TikTok, Facebook and Snapchat) I think there's an element of powerlessness when it comes to controlling which audience sees your content ...and for how long.
And to further complicate the matter (or to spice things up, depending on your perspective), according to some folks we spoke with, the press release lacks the relevance and usefulness it once had.
One law firm founder we spoke to said they previously used press releases, but no more:
In the work I do, the press release is completely dead. We used to use press releases to share updates on cases we were working on, provide insight for the media, and other developments happening around the work we were doing, but no more. We no longer see the value in writing a press release (even if it only took an hour) and we wouldn’t even know where to send it to get someone interested. Media don’t run off them and there’s no value in them for us. They did have their perks back in the day when we were able to use them to instantly share important information but those days have passed.
In many cases, the continued efficacy depends largely on the industry and how you plan to write, distribute, and communicate the press release to the public.
Many of the sources we spoke to had a "yes, but…" approach to the importance of press releases. Yes, they're important, but they are just one element of a great communications strategy.
Press releases alone no longer carry the full weight of gaining media coverage and connecting with audiences. You can put out a thousand press releases, but if you're neglecting other important channels and opportunities to connect with your audience, you're certainly missing out.
Now that you know why press releases are still important in today's communications climate, keep your press release education going by checking out 155 of the best press release examples we could find!
Updated January 2023