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Guest blog by Greg Jarboe
October 28th was the 100th birthday of the press release. Internet marketing executives who are interested in the future of the online press release can learn some important lessons from the early history of public relations.
Ivy Lee, who some consider to be the father of modern PR, invented the press release on October 28, 1906. One of his first clients was the Pennsylvania Railroad in the US. Following a major accident in Atlantic City, NJ, Lee not only convinced the railroad to distribute the first press release, he also invited reporters to the scene of the accident and provided a special train to get them there.
The New York Times was so impressed with this innovative approach to corporate communications that it printed the first press release – verbatim – as a “Statement from the Road” on Oct. 30, 1906. In the weeks that followed, public officials and other newspapers effusively praised Pennsylvania Railroad for its openness and honesty.
The following spring, some anthracite coal operators in the US hired Lee to represent them during a strike. When he mailed out the second press release, journalists started expressing hostility, calling in an ad disguised as a story sent to manipulate news coverage.
In response, Ivy Lee issued a “Declaration of Principles” that stated:
This is not a secret press bureau. All our work is done in the open. We aim to supply news. If you think any of our matter ought properly to go to your business office, do not use it.
His Declaration of Principles added:
Our matter is accurate. Further details on any subject treated will be supplied promptly, and any editor will be assisted most cheerfully in verifying directly any statement of fact. In brief, our plan is, frankly and openly, on behalf of business concerns and public institutions, to supply to the press and public of the United States prompt and accurate information concerning subjects which it is of value and interest to the public to know about.
A hundred years later, some things are significantly different, but others are remarkably unchanged – on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
How the press release has changed in the past 100 years
In both the US and the UK, when someone uses Google News or Yahoo! News to conduct a news search, they often find recent and relevant press releases – verbatim – along with news stories in the results. This has prompted a new generation of innovators – led by my firm – to re-invent the press release for news search engines.
Tad Clarke, the Editorial Director of MarketingSherpa, refers to “the tactic known as SEO PR” as “optimizing press releases” and the results as “optimized releases.”
But, no matter what this latest innovation is called, it faces some of the same mixed reactions that Ivy Lee encountered 100 years ago. Brian Easter, the CEO of NeboWeb, captured this ambivalence in a recent article for Promotion World entitled, “SEO PR: Buzzworthy or Just Hype?”
Meanwhile, another group of inventors are urging public relations agencies to post their news releases to social media websites. They’re also lobbying press release distribution services to add del.icio.us bookmarks and Technorati tags to every news release.
They call their innovation “PR 2.0,” “PR Squared,” and “the social media press release.”
Reactions to this tactic have also been mixed. This skepticism is captured in a post entitled, “A Press Release for Social Media? I Think Not,” by Teresa Valdez Klein on the Blog Business Summit site.
So, which of these innovations is more likely to get adopted – optimized releases or the social media press release? Will be horses for courses, or will these ideas be combined into “SEO PR 2.0”?
The answers to these questions will be decided by two important groups who have different – and potentially conflicting – goals.
The first group is the internet marketing executives who hire PR agencies and SEO firms. So, the advocates of “SEO PR” and “PR 2.0” on both sides of the pond will need to focus on the success metrics which internet marketers are focused on.
And, while some internet marketing executives are interested in how many press cutting or how much “buzz” an online press release generates, other internet marketers are more interested in how many website visitors and sales leads an online press release generates. In other words, they are focused on “outcomes” as well as “outputs.”
The second group is the press and public. If reporters, bloggers, early adopters or opinion leaders find an online press release in Google News, Yahoo! News, del.iciou.us, or Technorati, they will express hostility if it looks like an ad disguised as a story sent to manipulate news coverage.
So, the advocates of “SEO PR” and “PR 2.0” both need to supply news of value and interest, accurate information, as well as further details promptly and directly. In other words, an online press release needs to meet the goals of the press and public, who are more interested in being information-seekers than information-receivers.
So, the both pioneers of SEO PR and the inventors of PR 2.0 can learn some important lessons from Ivy Lee’s Declaration of Principles. While they are almost 100 years old, they could have been written yesterday.