About a year ago I joined On Deck, a community of high-achieving tech professionals exploring their next career moves. Some of them had started and sold startups, whereas others were executives at big tech or high-flying brands like Cameo and Brex. At the time of joining, though, all of them were looking to start their next company.
On Deck community members are encouraged to give back to the community by sharing their expertise, offering advice and helping each other out. Inspired by this ethos, I was eager to join in. Soon, I noticed that other participants had many questions about getting press coverage for startups.
As someone who had been building a startup in this space for two years, I was well-equipped to help. Oftentimes, this process involved me getting on a call with a fellow founder where we talked through their goals, and I could answer questions and offer advice. Inevitably, during these conversations, founders would ask the same dreaded question: “Should we issue a press release?”
Not so long ago, issuing a press release was a good way to let the right people know you had a story to tell. You would issue a statement, have it distributed to the right people and, ultimately, get a story in some press outlet as a result. This is no longer true, however. In fact, in this day and age, issuing a press release is nothing but a waste of time and money.
Let’s see why.
The History of the Press Release
What’s Wrong With Press Releases?
The first press release was issued in 1906 when Ivy Lee documented the deaths of 50 people in a railroad accident involving the Pennsylvania Railroad. He wrote down the facts of the event and shared his report with fellow journalists. Lee’s coverage was so clear that his exact report got published in the New York Times.
Ever since, press releases have become the standard way of informing large numbers of journalists about important events and statistics with a single document. Its popularity led to the rise of wire distribution services whose job was to deliver the news to the right people.
For most of the 20th century, this system worked well. Companies had their publicists write press releases, send them to a wire distribution service and then wait for reporters to start reaching out for a comment. Usually, they did. The story would be published, and everyone was happy.
Then, the world changed. The internet and social media gave more people the ability to share their thoughts directly with a broader audience, and journalists no longer had to rely on press releases to find interesting stories. Stories unfolded in real time and had never been easier to find. All of a sudden, press releases had become obsolete.
But although the media has adapted, the PR world hasn’t. Today, if you navigate to a wire distribution service’s website, you’ll see a number of stories published. Most of them follow the exact same format: location, date, an announcement of the news in the first sentence, followed by a stale description of why it matters, usually involving a quote from someone in the organization.
If this format sounds boring, that’s because it is. Making it through such “stories” is a challenge for anyone, let alone reporters who get 400-plus emails a day. In fact, I’ve never spoken with any journalists who even read or care about press releases.
The same applies to podcasters, YouTubers and newsletter writers. I’ve yet to hear of a creator who subscribes for a wire distribution service. Instead, they find their stories on Twitter. If they see something that piques their interest, the founder of the company is usually just a DM or an email away. Plus, they’re more than happy to talk about their company, especially if the creator already has a substantial audience.
So, if no one reads press releases, why do wire distribution services seem to guarantee that your story will get into major media outlets? Technically, they can do this for you. Although using a service like PR Newswire probably won’t get your story in front of a relevant reporter, the service can still automatically publish it to an outlet’s website. This strategy means that your press release will be printed word for word and published at the very back of the website where no one will see it, though. It won’t contain any backlinks to your website, which won’t help your SEO. Even if you write the press release yourself, you’ll still spend several thousand dollars on the wire service without getting any results.
Upgrading the Press Release
Now that we’ve established that a press release is not the right way to share your announcements, let’s look at the alternatives.
First and foremost, you want to build relationships with the right people ahead of time. If you know some prominent writers or podcasters in your space, you may want to follow them on Twitter and engage with their content by commenting on their tweets. If your responses are good, they will likely engage with them, which can spark a conversation. Once you know what they’re interested in, you can always tag them in relevant posts and ask their opinion. They’ll probably be more than happy to share some thoughts. Even if they don’t follow you back right away, this type of outreach does put you on their radar.
In addition, you can always look for an introduction to relevant journalists and creators. Maybe you have a mutual friend, or they did a story about someone you know. The important thing is to get to know them as people and not ask for a story right away.
Instead, try to be helpful. This could mean connecting them with a relevant person for a story they’re working on or sending them information about topics they’re interested in. This approach will help build the relationship and allow you to send them your news when the time comes.
Then, as we already know, the best way to do so would not be in a press release. Instead, you can write a blog post about your announcement. This way, you can not only send a brief email linking to your blog post, but you can also use the piece to share the news on social media and tag relevant people in the comments. This method is much more likely to get their attention than a stale, boring press release.