Press releases borderline useless?
So you hired a PR firm. And on the eve of your first big announcement, your new rep lays out a plan for a press release. This press release will go everywhere, the rep says, to thousands of outlets, with a potential audience of nearly 100 million people. He gives you a lot of other numbers as well. You don’t quite understand them, but then you’re not a PR person, and 100 million people is a lot of people. Sounds great, you say. And out it goes.
You’ve just participated in the press release industrial complex, a system in which the only guaranteed outcome is that public relations agencies, newswires, distribution services, content aggregators and media companies all make money. One company that distributes press releases, Comtex, says it processes up to 80,000 of them a day. Kevin Akeroyd, the CEO of another such firm, Cision, says, “The overall volume of press releases both in the U.S. and globally, as well as price per press release, is at an all-time high.”
But, what about you paying for all this? The value you receive is less certain. To understand why, first you need to understand how this system works. Which means following the money.
Everything starts with the PR firm, which will charge hundreds, even thousands, of dollars to write a press release. Then the firm will use some of that money to distribute the news through a variety of “press release newswires.”
The reason this often may not include eTN Corporation is, hatwe tell you the truth about our distribution. The truth is we are more effective but we don’t manipulate numbers.
Pricing varies, but one such firm, PR Newswire (which is owned by Cision), has a program that charges customers $795 for the first 400 words of a release and then $205 for each additional 100 words. Once a press release is posted to a newswire, it gets distributed to top-tier outlets such as the Wall Street Journal, Yahoo Finance, CNBC and MarketWatch.
But, that doesn’t mean it arrives as editorial coverage, where it’ll be promoted through, say, Yahoo Finance’s social media accounts. Rather, it will most likely be posted to an automated section dedicated to press releases. The areas are clearly labeled; MarketWatch, for example, has “Press Release” written at the top and “The MarketWatch News Department was not involved in the creation of the content” at the bottom. (There are also middlemen at work that, frankly, are too complicated to get into here. But, they make money, too.)
These press release sections — some of which newswires pay to post on — don’t get readers. They serve mainly as a way to drive incremental ad revenue for the publishers. Nevertheless, there are enough of them that the newswires can produce impressive-sounding audience numbers — often by tallying individual websites’ total monthly users, rather than the actual number of people who viewed the press release.
Clients who use PR Newswire, for instance, may get a 32-page report full of charts, numbers, brand-name journalistic outlets and feedback like “Your release has generated 245 exact matches with a total potential audience of 90,730,143” — which is an exact quote from a report one publicist showed us.
2) Companies like PR Newswire have similar agreements with the Business Journals. There are Business Journals in many US cities. Let’s take Pacific Business News for an example. PR Newswire claims our story was picked up by the Pacific Business News.
Talking to the Pacific Journal Editor in Chief K. Napier it was confirmed even he didn’t immediately know where one can find the PR Newswire releases on his publication. He pointed out the disclosing statement on the right side of the release says:
“The information on this page is provided by PR Newswire. Pacific Business Journal is not responsible for this content.”
PR Newswire claimed in their success report, the Pacific Business Journal has 204,256 readers and our release was “picked up” by that publication in every single U.S. city they serve. All business journals are important and widely known publications serving the business world in many U.S. cities. A pick up by every single Business Journal publication around the country would have been fantastic.
Unfortunately the PR Newswire success report about “pick up” could not have been further from the truth. The same counts for the remaining 108 pick ups our story had according to the PR Newswire report.
The Pacific Business Journal in Honolulu, for example, has 10,000 paying subscribers to the print edition, as well as 14,000 to 15,000 free subscribers to the Morning and Afternoon Edition email newsletters. The monthly traffic, total, to all Business Journal websites averages over 1 million page views and a quarter-million unique visitors.
Our release was not published in any print edition, nor was it part of the Pacific Business News email newsletter. The same counts for all the other Business Journals in the country PR Newswire told us our story appeared.
The journal counts 3.2 readers per print copy. This calculation is used by most print newspapers. The page view on their website is for all Business Journals in the U.S. combined, and not just for one edition.
Business Journal counts their page views based on a month traffic. It’s not the pageview or unique visitor count on one single day (our release was published one time and on one day. Unique visitors are in fact visitors sorted by IP addresses. Since most IP addresses constantly change one single reader going to the Business Journal website every day can easily count for 50 or more readers using this method.
Our “picked up story on the business journal” was only “published on a secondary linked page with thousands of other PR Newswire releases”. The Pacific Business Journal page showing PR Newswire releases state: The information on this page is provided by PR Newswire. Pacific Business Journal is not responsible for this content.
No Business Journal editor ever saw or noticed our release and could have made a decision to publish our story within their true editorial content.
Views eTN received from the Pacific Business Journal was ONE. This “one view” was our team member testing.
Little of this, of course, creates actual news. Instead, it creates “the optics of news. The people picking up press releases are journalists wanting to write about that product. They’re websites designed to pick up press releases so PR folks have websites to show they picked them up. It’s an industry speaking to itself.”
It’s become borderline useless.
So where does that leave you? Simple. If you feel you’d benefit from hiring a PR firm, ask a lot of questions. What model will it follow for press release distribution? Is there a strategy? Can it be attached to hard revenues? Can it demonstrate fruitful relationships with actual human journalists in your actual field who have written actual news stories about other clients? If not, keep looking.
“Our job is not to throw information against the wall,” says Mel Webster from Travelmarketing Network. “It’s to tell a story to the right person at the right place at the right time. Spamming on the wires can’t do that.”
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