Press releases will destroy your soul

by David Harris on November 3, 2010

Why do we still write press releases? Let’s look at the pros and cons.


  1. You can get a message out to lots of people easily.
  2. There are plenty of systems already built for shepherding press releases to journalists.
  3. You can emphasize the parts of the story that you want people to pay attention to.


  1. Institutional requirements about attributions, credits, etc. usually require them to be bloated, ugly pieces of writing.
  2. Journalists get so many of them that it’s increasingly difficult for yours to get attention.
  3. Journalists might consider it spam, but it’s hard for you to tell if you’ve been relegated to the spam folder.
  4. Press releases have a kind of mythic status in many institutions and among many people, and institutions typically have unreasonable expectations for results.
  5. They can take huge amounts of time and effort to prepare because of approval overhead and political paranoia.
  6. The researchers typically have the final say on what happens.
  7. They are generally diluted to least-common-denominator form as multiple layers of approvals each water down the content.
  8. You really don’t have the control you need to serve the research well.
  9. You usually can’t target your audience very finely.
  10. Press releases are subject to policies/guidelines/rules enacted only because some person got upset with some other person sometime in the past, or somebody was paranoid, or somebody didn’t know what they were doing and just copied the way somebody else did it.
  11. Researchers are often apprehensive about getting involved.
  12. Somebody almost always gets upset.

One of these lists is much longer than the other. Given the imbalance, are the pros worth the cons? To decide this, can we achieve the pros some other way because, after all, the press release is just a tool, and you might be able to achieve that goal some other way.

I worked in an institution that typically required about five internal approvals and up to 17 agency approvals to get a release out. By the time that process ran its course, my staff would have used up to 100 hours of time between us, and the news would be old before it got to the public. I hated it, and it didn’t work. The way we got press was by subverting the system, but you can’t always tell management that. As I write this, I have just received a message from a colleague at that institution saying that they couldn’t meet me for coffee as they were waiting on a press release approval. Your life shouldn’t be dictated by such things!

Let’s really decide if the pros are worth it.

Pro 1) You can get a message out to a lot of people at once

This “pro” isn’t really about press releases at all but about distribution mechanisms. The real value here is that you only have to write one piece and can send that same version to lots of people. However, the information ecosystem has changed and you are no longer dependent on news outlets picking up your story to have it widely distributed.

There are plenty of other options available for distribution now. And they don’t just get your information to journalists. You’ll probably want to consider whether you want to target everybody with one form of writing for a start. It might be worth the investment to spend a little more time writing different versions of the same story suited to different audiences and then distributing those broadly. The incremental overhead of a second/third version, if it doesn’t need to go through an effort-consuming approval process, is probably worth it.

Press releases are no longer mailed out or faxed out (except in some particularly archaic institutions—yes, the practice still exists!) It is almost all electronic, but your specific mechanisms are plentiful. Email lists are still pretty standard, commercial and non-commercial press release distribution mechanisms are common, and then we have a whole world of Web sites, RSS feeds, blogs, social media, and the like as tools for distribution. How many of these actually require your news to be in the form of a press release? Perhaps the release distribution services, but even those are likely to be far less restrictive than your institution’s own rules.

Most institutions will allow you to get around most of their rules if you don’t call your writing a press release because the bureaucracy has barely noticed that the Web exists, let alone all your myriad ways of putting information out.

So really, there is nothing in this distribution question that requires a traditional press release. Let’s move on.

Pro 2) There are plenty of systems already built for shepherding press releases to journalists

The ease-of-use argument is probably the strongest for using press releases but it’s definitely not the only option. You might need to work harder to get other distribution mechanisms working well, but you ought to be doing that anyway, and not relying only on press release distributions. Given that these distribution services exist and can be cheap or free, use them by all means if it doesn’t mean turning your story into something lifeless. But keep working your networks and communication channels in all the other ways to make these services redundant.

Again, there is probably nothing here that requires what you would call a traditional press release, except you might have to fill out boxes on a Web form that include various info about contacts, funders, etc. That’s actually a good thing as it means the service is probably placing that information in a box/section separate from the body of the release so it becomes more journalist-friendly. Journalists can get to that info easily when they need it but it’s not in the way when they are trying to find out if you have a story worth covering.

Pro 3) You can emphasize the parts of the story that you want people to pay attention to.


You really think you can tell journalists which part to listen to? If the part you choose isn’t the best part, you’re damaging your chances of pickup at best. Otherwise, you’ll look you’re spinning, or are incompetent, or out of touch.

Journalists will write what they want to write and you are doing everybody a favor if you lead with the real news. Even if some spinning will be effective in the short term, it won’t help in the long term because it will undermine any trust in you.

Last week I saw a case where a press release claimed a biggest, first result published in a leading journal, without acknowledging that another group had put out a paper the week before which beat that supposed record. Some journalists who didn’t have time to find the previous work picked up on the story and wrote it based on believing the release. But when they found out about the other, they had to do more work to add corrections and comments to their stories. Editors hate it when that happens, and writers aren’t too fond of it either. Now, do those writers and editors trust the source of that press release more or less seeing as they gave an incomplete story that led to more work and poorer quality work?

At this point, I’m sure you can see what I’m getting at. Traditional press releases have very limited benefits and plenty of downsides. I’m not even going to go into them in detail as I’m sure you’ve experienced many of them yourself.

The solution? Write good stories. Get them out efficiently and promptly through your networks without calling them formal releases. Use formats that best suit the story and audiences, rather than squeezing it into a set of silly expectations about a “press release.”

Avoid the press release and save your soul.

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