The Social Media Press Release is Dead

by Jeff Mascott

Four years ago, technology journalist Tom Foremski deemed the press release "nearly useless," a PR tool that is far more likely to line a trash can than to earn media coverage.

Fed up with the wasted effort and expense that goes into pushing out a press release, Foremski offered a new proposal: "deconstruct" the traditional press release into straightforward factual nuggets and list quotes from C-level executives that publishers could piece together to form a news story. By using tags to indicate company-generated content, journalists would be free to add their own angle without duplicating the effort that typically goes into rewriting facts.

The “Die! Press Release! Die! Die! Die!” blog post turned out to be something of a watershed moment for the public relations community. Foremski's critique became the basis for the social media press release, an innovation many predicted would transform the industry.

The Earliest Version of the Social Media Press Release

Todd Defren, a principal at San Francisco-based SHIFT Communications, is credited for being the "creator" of the social media press release. SHIFT’s 1.0 template, released in 2006, rejected the narrative format entirely. Instead, it adopted Foremski's bulleted list of core news facts and quotes, supplemented by media content and then-novel social media sharing features (e.g., "Digg This" and "Share on" functionality).

SHIFT's template provoked heated debate in the PR world. My firm, for one, took issue with SHIFT's suggested format of the "next generation" press release. We certainly embraced (and continue to embrace) a more conversational format for news releases. But we also think that eliminating narrative content altogether is a mistake.

Reducing content to bulleted lists fosters cynicism about the press. By trying to make life easier for journalists, the PR industry is basically sending the message that a reporter's role involves little more that copying and pasting someone else's text.

In addition, bulletpoints are usually just flat-out boring. Without context, a collection of standalone facts and quotes makes for a dry, choppy read. No one wants to spend their time reading unreadable content - not the general public nor journalists. Bullets can also create technical problems for syndicating content via email, making social media press releases largely unshareable.

The Evolution of the Social Media Press Release

SHIFT’s 1.5 template, released in 2008, made some concessions to these points. First, the title changed from "social media press release" to "social media news release," an adjustment that reflects a growing industry consensus that news releases are no longer just for the press. Most importantly, in the "Core News Facts" section, the revised model allows for either bullet points or narrative content.

Other PR folks have gotten involved to make their own contributions to the social media release's evolution:

- A group of PR pros from the United Kingdom's Webitpr released their version of the Social Media News Release in 2007, recommending either deconstructed bulletpoints or narrative prose.

- Palette Public Relations' Martin Waxman, along with Todd Defren, have advocated for taking the social media release to the next level with the social media newsroom template.

- Shel Holtz, an early and vocal proponent of the social media news release, continues to argue that the pick-and-choose format of a social media news release works.

Why the Social Media Press Release Failed

Yet, in reality, the social media release has never quite caught on. PR giant Edelman began offering social media press release services to clients back in 2006. Tellingly, however, every social media press release issued by the firm was accompanied by a "traditional" press release, written in narrative form. But a quick look at the firm's StoryCrafter service shows that for the past two years, Edelman seems to have stopped producing social media press releases altogether.

The popularity of blogs, Twitter and Facebook makes the absence of social media press releases even more conspicuous. PR professionals are not afraid to try new social media tactics. The problem is that there is nothing truly social about the social media release, at least in the form that SHIFT and others have touted.

As new media expert Brian Solis pointed out in his critique of the social media release, a truly social medium is focused on sparking a two-way dialogue, not throwing together a bulleted list of facts surrounded by every multimedia format available. Right now, the social media release is nothing more than an oxymoron.

The social media release's failure - and I should point out that there is, of course, mixed opinion about whether it is actually a failure at this point - implies there is a better approach.

Over the next few days, I will be doing a series of blog postings about what that approach entails. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Re-Thinking the Social Media Release

Part 1 | The Social Media Press Release is Dead

Part 2 | A Better Approach to the Social Media Release: Reach Three Audiences

Part 3 | A Better Approach to the Social Media Release: Reach Three Readers

Part 4 | The Key Components of a Better Social Media Release