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Learning from a Century of Press Releases

On October 28, 1906, the Pennsylvania Railroad issued what is believed to be the first press release. The release was the idea of the company’s outside public relations counsel, Ivy Ledbetter Lee, and it revolutionized how companies and organizations delivered information to the public. And modern-day public relations professionals can still learn plenty from the story of that very first press release.

The occasion for the first press release was a solemn affair. An eastbound train headed to Atlantic City, New Jersey derailed while crossing a drawbridge just outside of the city late in the afternoon. The train, made up of three new cars traveling on an electrified track, flew almost entirely off the tracks. 57 people died in the accident, most drowning after the train plunged into the water. Lee, perhaps realizing that rumors could cause his client damage, quickly swung into action.

Lee issued a “Statement from the Road,” using the term “release,” and sent it off to newspapers. He also had the Pennsylvania Railroad set up a special train to bring reporters to the scene. The New York Times printed the release verbatim on its front page the next morning.

The Pennsylvania Railroad earned praise from the media over the following weeks, as editors and reporters credited the company for providing them with timely information. The press release also helped the company’s public image. Often derided for not caring about safety — railroad accidents were common affairs up until the end of World War I — the Pennsylvania Railroad was soon the subject of admiring articles citing the company’s concern for safety.

While the first press release was a success, it took a few years for the concept to catch on. Ivy Ledbetter Lee found out how fickle the media can be when, a year later, he issued press releases on behalf of striking coal miners. The media accused Lee and the miners of trying to trick the public into believing that “advertisements” were news stories.

The basic premise of the press release has changed little over the past century. Press releases are still used as information delivery mechanisms. The very words “press release” bestow authenticity because the information is coming directly from the source. How press releases are utilized has changed, however.

“[The press release] has become devalued,” Glen Broom, professor emeritus of public relations at San Diego State University, told American Heritage magazine in 2006. “Many press releases are not even written for the press, they’re written to please some client or boss. So-and-so’s son or granddaughter gets promoted to vice president, a press release goes out, it never has a chance of getting used, but it pleases the client.”

Glen Bloom, I’m sure we can all agree, is correct. Press releases are abused by many companies and clients, seen as a way to reward individuals or simply to deliver information that is not necessarily newsworthy to the public, but compelling only to the company or client itself. Many press releases are vague or confusing, and others are so ineffective that the money would be better spent on an advertisement.

Make no mistake, the press release is still an immensely valuable tool. Thanks to the internet, consumers now have direct access to press releases. Investors, for example, rely heavily on press releases, often expressing disbelief about reports on their investments until the company itself makes a public announcement via a press release.

These days, the keys to a successful press release are simple:

1.) The release should contain information relevant to the public or the media. Why spend the money on a press release if no one is going to care about it?

2.) The press release should be targeted appropriately. Simply putting a release on the news wire is not enough, because you’re relying on journalists being on the lookout for press releases. Once issued, the proper media outlets and/or reporters should be apprised of the press release’s existence.

3.) Press releases should be clearly written and leave little room for basic questions. Yes, you want the media to follow up on the release, but you also want the media to be able to write a story based solely on the release itself.

4.) Press releases should be timely. No one cares about old information because it’s not newsworthy. Press releases reiterating old information can also cause confusion.

5.) The press release should contain contact information. I’m still amazed by the number of press releases that go out without contact information. To me, that’s a slap in the media’s face. You’re willing to issue the press release, but you’re not willing to talk about it further?

After more than a century, press releases are still an important tool in public relations. When utilized correctly, the press release can open up new avenues of communication with the media and the public, and kick-start the process of getting regular media coverage. A good press release pays for itself 10X on a bad day, and 100X or more on a good day.

More than 100 years ago, the press release was born. The way we disseminate, receive, and digest information has changed a lot since then. For all intents and purposes, the basic idea behind the press release has not. Sometimes, change is unnecessary.

This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.

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