The press release, the original tool of the PR pro, is broken.
It happened in stages. First there came email, prior to which press releases had been faxed or posted to editors, the laboriousness of the task forcing PR people to choose their targets with appropriate care and attention.
But with email, you can grab a list and not think twice about bunging it out to all and sundry. The result was laziness leading to abuse.
Then came the SEO industry. The press release’s power for generating link juice was spotted. Stick a press release on a wire and regardless of its quality or newsworthiness, its content and links will get replicated across the web, even on some authoritative domains.
Once again, the result was laziness leading to abuse.
This has left the once noble press release a tool of significantly diminished power. It’s still a necessity; journalists still expect to see them, they’re the generally accepted form of packaging a news story for media. But email and search have opened the floodgates making it difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff.
Meanwhile, social media is both creating new ways to package stories and changing the way relationships work, between PRs and media, media and their readers, and brands direct to their audiences.
Fixing the search problem
Of course Google has already started to address the search problem. The changes it made last month on its webmaster tools page on link schemes caused a stir, with some astounding misunderstanding demonstrated of what the purpose of the press release is.
But Google was not cracking down on use of press releases, just the misuse of them for manipulation of search results. The changes do not affect the press release’s original function, which is the packaging of a news story. So this should, in theory, lead to a widespread uplift in quality of the releases that are published online via wire services.
As with all of its algorithm tweaks, Google made these changes is because it cares a great deal about the quality of its search product.
Could Google fix the email problem?
Another product Google cares a great deal about the quality of is Gmail, and it recently made some pretty hefty changes to the product, introducing separate tabs for different categories of message.
Again, an industry stir has been caused, with email marketers concerned about their messages landing in a hived off section of users’ inboxes, but other than a few tweets from journalists I haven’t seen much analysis as to how this affects email delivery of press releases.
Doing a little experimentation of my own, I’ve found that if you use a standard media database email delivery system, any press release will end up in the ‘updates’ tab. Emailing the exact same release direct from my work email to my Gmail address lands it in ‘primary’.
So there are two issues here. Firstly, as I’m using my work address to email my personal Gmail, two addresses I frequently send things between, it would make sense for Gmail to recognise myself as a primary contact. But the media database delivery also technically delivers the message from my work email address, just via the database’s servers. So even when I am a trusted contact, I am still landing in ‘updates’.
The second issue is whether this matters. Some email marketers are arguing that Gmail’s tabbed inbox is good news. Perhaps it’s a good thing that your promotional message is getting filtered to ‘promotions’, as that is what it is.
I know personally that I’ve spent more time looking at the newsletters and email marketing I receive since the introduction of tabbed inbox. When I click over onto ‘promotions’ or ‘updates’ I am not expecting to see personal emails, so am willing to spend time sifting through in case there’s anything interesting.
Could the same apply to press releases? If releases are being filtered to another tab, that doesn’t mean they’re not necessarily getting looked at.
I know many journalists who use Gmail are happy to be seeing press releases being filtered. One told me that releases mostly go into promotions or updates, which helps combat the feeling of information overload.
Another journalist told me that he’s seeing Gmail cleverly deliver things of interest filter into ‘primary’. Which he’s very happy with, and it would suggest Google is using its affinity and interest data to filter messages for him.
Though by the subjective nature of what is ‘interesting’ the system is not flawless and requires occasional teaching, this is still quite a feat.
Aside from content, the other reason an emailed release may end up in primary is that it’s from a known contact. One not quite so new ‘filtering mechanism’ that journalists have always used to determine what’s worth paying attention to is relationships.
By that I don’t mean the murky world of PR to journalist ‘I scratch your back you scratch mine’, I am talking here about trust, and authority. Journalists value their trusted sources above all else, and conversely PR pros value their relationships, those where they have established a position as a trusted source.
A PR person consistently offering newsworthy stories and quality content to the right journalists is how these kinds of relationships get built. Then there are face-to-face conversations and increasingly, interaction via social media.
Once again, we’re straying into a territory Google is looking to own – authority and relationships. With Google+, Authorship, Author Rank and Publisher Rank Google is increasingly not only building data on our interests, but on our relationships and our authority as sources.
What does the Google solution look like?
As with email, Google+’s effect on how PRs and journalists interact is incidental, but there is a big potential here.
In fact it’s happening already. I already know that if I can interact with a journalist on Google+, or get added to one of their circles, the next time I email them with a story I am more likely to land in their primary inbox.
What if I could build my Author Rank via distribution of newsworthy press releases, further increasing the chances of an editor looking at it? Or even if I distributed them via Google+, using my circles like I do email media lists now?
There’s one assumption I’ve made for the purpose of this analysis, which is the all-pervasive use of Google products by PRs and journalists. Google Search, we can safely assume, is pretty much used by all. Gmail, I’d guess has a reasonably high usage rate among online media, but it’s far from the only email provider.
As Google Authorship grows in importance online media would be foolish to ignore Google+, but it still has its naysayers.
As I mention, the relevant moves Google has made to fix the problems with press releases thus far have been incidental, quality improvements from a giant that have a knock on affect. Addressing the issue of how PR people interact with media is not likely to be a business priority.
If I’d written this over a year ago, I probably would have mentioned Google Reader as another potential press release delivery mechanism, and we all know how much of a business priority that was for the company.
So will Google purposefully go about continuing to fix the press release? Probably not. Will it make further changes that have a knock on effect? Possibly. But if anyone can fix it, Google can.