Media & PR

Lessons for the digital age from the very first press release

A little over over a century ago, back in 1906, Ivy Lee dispatched the very first press release. The communication challenges he faced back then – which caused him to invent the press release – are actually ones that sound very familiar today.

The press release was born after a major railway accident on the Pennsylvania Railroad in the US.

In a desire to head off the spread of inaccurate rumours, Ivy Lee put together a written statement – the first press release.

He distributed it promptly to journalists and even laid on a special train for them and their photographers to get to the scene of the accident.

These are all tactics that have as much validity now as then – help journalists do their job and provide information quickly and authoritatively.

The sequel to the first press release also has many parallels with today. First, the initial thanks from the media for being accurate, quick and helpful.

But then, when subsequent press releases were sent out during a coal strike, the complaint from journalists was that they were being inundated – or perhaps I should say spammed – with messages that were little more than thinly disguised marketing blurbs.

Some things certainly don’t change!

Ivy Lee’s firm – Parker and Lee – operated under the slogan, “Accuracy, Authenticity and Interest”.

When inaccurate stories can flash around the world and gather momentum in the click of a “send” button on your computer – the need for promoting accuracy is as important as when Mark Twain – or perhaps more accurately Charles Spurgeon – first complained that “A lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on”.

As for authenticity it is, if anything, undergoing a new lease of life (including the inevitable accompanying backlash) as increasing cynicism about sources of traditional authority requires communications professionals to work all the harder to persuade others of the truth of their claims.

Authenticity generates trust and belief – crucial factors for a communicator.

And as for interest – the third part of the slogan – well, in a heavily fragmented media landscape and a society with ever-increasing draws on people’s time, there is a constant battle to get the attention of your audience with an interesting angle on the story.

So this trio – accuracy, authenticity and interest – was crucial to Ivy Lee and is still essential to us today.

But whilst the principles may be the same, the environment in which those principles have to be applied most certainly is changing.

Having previously worked in politics, I still have a tendency to measure change in four or five year chunks – using the length of a Parliament as the measuring stick.

And looking back just to the general election before last, to the world of the 2005 general election campaign, shows how fast the online communications world has moved.

Back in 2005, only a small handful of MPs blogged, Facebook was restricted to students and Twitter was not around. Internet Explorer had just topped a 92% market share of the web browser market. Meanwhile, Google had less than half of the search engine market. YouTube was still in a test launch mode at the time of the general election.

All of those situations had been radically transformed in just the five years to 2010.

Not all online technology has changed swiftly, mind you.

Then as now email was the often overlooked giant of online activity. In the UK, over 90% of internet users use email and it continues to be the most widespread online activity, ahead of social networking.

Your own inboxes probably attest each day to just how heavily email is used… but think how often communication strategies featuring the internet and social media forget email.

People in marketing certainly know the value of email – but people in public relations often don’t – reducing it to merely a route for sending out news releases or communicating round their own office.

Email is in fact a multi-purpose tool capable of far more than that.

And its multiple uses highlight a convergence – not the technical convergence of different media which is often talked about – but an organisational convergence as the dividing lines between marketing, customer service and PR become increasingly blurred.

The unhappy customer who blogs about the product and gets read by a journalist – that’s not just a customer service issue, it’s a PR problem.

The happy customer who writes a glowing review – that’s not just a marketing bonus, it’s a PR plus.

Or the company disaster that gets picked up in the media and dominates searches for the company’s products – that’s not just a PR problem, it’s a marketing burden.

Tools such as blogs, social networks and email mean that what used to be neatly segmented between PR, marketing and customer services is increasingly converging into one closely inter-related and mixed flow of information and views.

This convergence poses a real challenge both for in-house teams and for agencies.

In the political arena we have seen how the structure of campaign teams is increasingly an integrated one, with people from the different disciplines sat side-by-side in open plan campaign “war rooms”.

Yet a recent survey of UK companies found that less than one in five manage their social media presence via a cross-functional team.

The prevalence of silos is also demonstrated in a small but telling way by just what a poor guide either the front page or contact details page of a corporation’s website is to whether or not it is active on Twitter or Facebook.

What one team – social media – works at hard to promote another team – website – keeps silent from the public.

So there is a big challenge of integration facing corporates and brands.

To look at it another way, imagine the chaos and duplication and waste that would occur if an organisation structured its press office so that there was a different team for each day of the week.

It would be a completely artificial divide and result in the oddities of different teams of people all overlapping in dealing with the same journalists on daily titles, for example.

And yet, when it comes to the digital world, we frequently have just that fragmentation between marketing, PR and customer service functions.

From the point of view of the public, media, marketing and customer service all merge in to provide one overall experience.

You see it on Google search results page, where websites, adverts, news coverage, blogs and more are all integrated into one page of results – presented together, mixed in with each other.

When the results are so integrated, you can only hope to effectively manage them if your work too is integrated.

But the challenge of integrating isn’t just one of integrating across different teams and disciplines. It is also one of integrating over time.

Because for all the speed of the internet, it is often the tortoise that beats the hare. It is the steady continued building up of online audiences – accumulating email addresses, acquiring Twitter friends and accruing RSS subscribers – that wins out.

Online audiences have to be built up and have to be sustained.

And that means consistency from one communications campaign to the next.

For many organisations taking a more campaign-oriented approach to PR, drawing up specific objectives and plans, has been a huge step forward in recent years.

Yet it can come at a cost – a series of short-term initiatives, with their own micro-sites and Facebook pages that come and go with each campaign – and missing the value of building up audiences and relations with opinion formers and leaders over time.

So – a long term attitude to building audiences and relationships is vital.

And it should go hand in hand with a commitment to talking, not hectoring.

Because one of the distinguishing features of the rise of social media is a rising expectation that people will engage in two-way communication.

A good rule of thumb to bear in mind I always think is to imagine you are the author of a series of books. You’re sat on the train. Opposite is someone reading one of your titles.

What should you do?

You can smile inwardly and be pleased you have a reader. But that’s a missed opportunity.

You can whip out one of your other books from your bag and try to sell it to them. But that’s a botched opportunity.

It’s hitting the right note – polite and engaging that will work best – and most likely bring you future sales benefits. Behaving like the polite stranger on the train is a good way for corporates to think about PR in the digital age.

You need to find a common interest with your target audiences – based not on what you think they should be interested in but on what they actually are interested in.

You should take the opportunities to talk – and remember that even if you say nothing, other people will be thinking and talking about you anyway.

And you should strike a human note – because it’s the conversation, and not the shout, that people warm to.

Or to return to Ivy Lee, the inventor of the press release – be accurate, be authentic and be interesting.

That’s the route to success in the digital age.

 

Based on a keynote talk I gave at the CIPR’s Digital Focus event in 2009 and updated in 2015.

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