My first job in the mid-1980s was on a Wall Street trading desk. Every day, I would come to work and watch the Dow Jones Telerate and Reuters screens as they displayed specialized financial data, economic information, and stock prices. The screens also displayed news feeds, and within these news feeds were press releases. For decades, financial markets professionals have had access to company press releases distributed through BusinessWire, PRNewswire, Market Wire and other electronic press release distribution services. And they weren't just for publicly traded corporations; any company’s release would appear in trading rooms within seconds.
I distinctly remember traders intently watching the newswires for any signs of market-moving events. Often the headline of a press release would cause frenzy: "Did you see? IBM is acquiring a software company!" "It's on the wire; Boeing just got a 20-plane order from Singapore Airlines!" For years, markets often moved and stock prices rose and fell based on the raw press release content issued directly by companies, not on the news stories written minutes or hours later by reporters from newswire outlets like Reuters and Dow Jones (and later Bloomberg).
Press releases have also been available to professionals working within corporations, government agencies, and law firms, all of which have had access to raw press releases through services like NewsEdge and Factiva. These services have been delivering press releases to all kinds of professionals for competitive intelligence, research, discovery, and other purposes for decades.
Of course, since about 1995, the wide availability of the web has meant that press releases have been available for free to anyone with an Internet connection and Web browser.
Millions of people read press releases directly, unfiltered by the media. You need to be speaking directly to them!
As I tell this story to PR pros, I hear cries of "Hang on! We disagree! The role of public relations and the purpose of the press release as a tool are about communicating with the media." For an example of this thinking, look to Steve Rubel, one of the most influential PR bloggers in the world. He responded to my ideas about press releases by writing a post on his blog titled Direct to Consumer Press Releases Suck.
OK, let's take a look at traditional PR folks' objection. According to the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), "Public Relations is the professional discipline that ethically fosters mutually beneficial relationships among social entities." In 1988, the governing body of the PRSA – its Assembly – formally adopted a definition of public relations that has become the most accepted and widely used. "Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other." Nowhere does this description mention the media. PR is about reaching your audience. PR is not just about the media.
I think many PR professionals have a fear of the unknown. They don't understand how to communicate directly with consumers and want to live in the past, when there was no choice but to use the media as a mouthpiece. I also think there's a widely held view about the "purity" of the press release as a tool for the press. PR professionals don't want to know that tens of millions of people have the power to read their releases directly. It's easier to imagine a closed audience of a dozen reporters. But this argument is based on fear, not the facts; there is no good reason why organizations shouldn't communicate directly to their audiences, without a media filter, via releases.
Obviously, the first word of the term "press release" throws off some people, particularly PR professionals. I moderated a virtual debate for the International Association of Online Communicators (IAOC) that touched on this issue. Via the IAOC blog and this blog, many people commented on direct-to-consumer releases. The consensus of the dozens of professional communicators who weighed in was to call releases aimed at consumers "news releases."
Sounds good to me, so in the book I am currently writing and on this blog, I'll now refer to direct-to-consumer releases as "news releases." Thanks for your input on this!