The press release distribution service sits in an odd place within the world of communications. 

For a journalist, wires can highlight stories from abroad, or from niche industries that wouldn’t normally be on your radar but turn out to be interesting. However, getting the balance right is difficult. Signing up to receive email alerts opens the door to a flood of unrelated, badly-pitched releases. It’s a tough call.

For a PR, these wires are a reliable way to send out the releases that might appear dry, but your client insists on putting out – or need to be for financial reasons. You still need to write the story well, and tag properly, but it’s a quick and painless way to get the word out.

However – as Google alerts, social networks and online communities grow in strength and accuracy when sourcing stories and building relationships – what becomes of the wires? Do they become less important? Do they cease to exist?

We reached out to several newswires to hear it straight from the horse’s mouth, with the addition of one voice of reason to provide an unbiased viewpoint. Here’s what they had to say.

What’s the current state of press release distribution services? Are they as popular as they once were?

Tim Whitlock, co-founder BrandfeedWe’re in the middle of a shift from the old fashioned notion of ‘distribution’ as one-way broadcasting, toward a more modern ‘pub/sub’ model; where content is pushed to us, but on our terms. Journalists expect not to be ‘broadcast at’ and want better control over the content that reaches them. For brands and PRs, we expect the web to make distribution easy; so good tools that aid our workflow without annoying journalists should remain popular.

Daryl Willcox, chairman DWPub: Yes, they’re definitely as popular, more so if anything. What has happened is the market has got a little crowded, with a number of new services launching in the last couple of years. This means people have a lot more choice when it comes to release distribution services, though still only a handful offer true direct distribution to UK media in combination with significant online visibility.

Adam Parker, chief executive Realwire: It’s a crowded marketplace with a plethora of service providers. They include the high cost traditional wire services, specialist services that are focussed on particular sectors or media, database and platform providers – and free services that a recent analysis exercise by Vitis PR demonstrated have generally very little or no value. With the current challenging economic climate meaning that there is often less good news to announce in the first place, the fact that we have seen volume levels still increase suggests services have retained their popularity. This may also reflect experienced users of distribution services being more selective with which service they choose from the array of options on offer.

Stephen Waddington, MD Speed Communications: The public relations industry is embracing social media and slowly moving to direct relationships where relationships are built via direct engagement. It’s a long haul that will take a decade to work out. In the meantime wire services provide a short cut and though diminished will continue to have a role whilst these changes work through. The press release has become a general purpose document that an organisation publishes on its web site and issues via a wire service, not to inform the media of a news event, but typically to reach broader audiences and more often than not to satisfy an internal audience.

Wire services will always have a role in the financial market where a legislative framework demands that information is communicated simultaneously via prescribed channels.

Adam Cranfield, part of the digital communications team at Mynewsdesk: Good PR is about relationships, and carpet-bombing people with generic releases has never been a good way to start a relationship. Influencers in your sector are not just an email on a list – you need to engage with them on their terms, listen to what they are saying and measure how they respond to your content. Brands are starting to realise that they can offer so much more to journalists and other influencers than a dull, text-only press release every two months that goes out to every Tom, Dick and Harriett.

Journalists want news and content that is relevant, interesting and timely. Many ‘news wire’ services have a weak reputation for meeting those needs. Scattergun PR doesn’t work, so communicators are choosing smarter ways to engage influencers online, such as social media newsrooms, multimedia content and real-time interaction enabled by social listening.

Is this a dying industry – or an evolving one because of the benefits to search? 

TW: Like any industry, this will survive as long as it keeps up with change. Services that embrace the way the web is changing our attitudes at work will thrive; those that don’t will probably be left behind. Search isn’t dead yet, but people need to trust the sources. Discovery and recommendation are more modern forms of search that the industry would do well to crack. 

DW: The search benefits of online release distribution have certainly revitalised the industry over the last five years. Now that the driving force is social media, as online press release distribution can be an affective way of reaching bloggers and other influencers. With the current enthusiasm for content marketing, release distribution is very complimentary to such effort. This is an evolving industry, no doubt about it.

AP: It’s not a dying industry, but the services that haven’t evolved must certainly be feeling the pinch. Search has been just one of the areas pushing services to evolve. Social media and the all too frequent (unfortunately) practice of poor targeting have also been drivers for change. 

SW: During the downturn there has almost certainly been an increase in demand for wire services as a catch all means of ensuring that a press release reaches as broad an audience as possible. It’s often an issue of scale for large international organisations.

The online search industry has recognised the opportunity that press releases and wire services offer to build inbound links as a tactic to improve keyword search rankings. Faux news content is often distributed via a wire service with the goal of securing widespread coverage around target keywords and web links on editorially driven web sites that are ranked highly by search engines. It’s a mechanical process to game results that is a flawed strategy that creates confusion and can result in reputational damage. Wire services need to innovative and work out their relative to information flows as media continues to fragment and social media develops. Those that recognise these changes and figure out how to continue to be relevant by embracing social media will thrive.

AC: Public relations is more vital than ever, but the days when you could convince a handful of journalists to spin a story and think ‘job done’ are gone. Search engines and social media make everyone an investigative journalist, so all brands need a plan for getting favourable content seen on Google, Facebook and Twitter. The fundamental strategy is to grow your network of influencers and to keep nourishing them with valuable, rich, shareable and original content.

What’s the best practice in terms of using wire services? 

TW: If it’s not targeted, personal and relevant to your audience – then you’re doing something wrong. It’s debatable whether you can blame the tools for that. Just yesterday somebody told me they were annoyed by the daily recipient limit in Gmail. Apparently unaware of MailChimp and such, they wanted to send the same message to 100 journalists. Sure, we could build you a tool that will do that, but we won’t. We want to help the sender and the recipient, or rather – the publisher and the subscriber. That’s the long way of saying: find a tool that makes your life easier without compromising the quality of what you’re distributing.

DW: In all honesty I think many brands under-utilise press release distribution. There are so many benefits – not just the obvious wider reach to media and search benefits but also social media pick-up, direct to consumer communications and more – but some of this is quite subtle and only really works well as part of a concerted, long-term PR or content marketing campaign. Best practise I would say would be to identify what your real objectives are – whether that’s gaining online visibility, reaching the media or both. This will help you to select an appropriate wire service. You also need to consider where your customers are. Many people are mistakenly drawn to international wire services as it gives them the perception of broad coverage, but you have to question the real value of the results you get.

AP: They should be used where they can add some value and increase the likelihood of achieving your objectives and that’s all about relevance. Relevance in functional terms – if you have multimedia content to include then ensure the service can cope with this and doesn’t charge exorbitant add-on costs. Relevance to you or your client’s business – make sure the wire you use has an understanding of the sectors and areas of interest you are trying to target. Finally, relevance in terms of the approach to outbound distribution; do they only target potentially interested recipients? Beware claims of reaching tens of thousands of people.

SW: Align the service with your audience as closely as you can.

AC: News wires aren’t the answer and press releases shouldn’t be used in isolation. If a release does its initial job of piquing interest, the likely next step for a journalist or blogger is to search for further information. This is when you want to be the best source of information about your brand, by providing a fully integrated social media newsroom, multimedia content and multiple ways for them to connect with your brand.