More than 100 years ago, Ivy Lee – a former
reporter turned communications advisor –
issued what is now commonly regarded as
the world’s first press release. Today, however,
the opportunity to harness its online potential
has not been fully grasped.
The New York Times was said to have been so impressed by Ivy Lee’s statement on behalf of the Pennsylvania Railroad, regarding an accident in Atlantic City, that it published the release in full.
The so-called “father of the press release” may have taken his cue from earlier attempts to communicate corporate information, such as the 1880 “Notice to Bankers, Professional and Business Men” issued by Mutual Life Insurance, which refuted rumors that Mutual’s president was about to resign.
In the intervening century, distribution of press releases continued to follow a fairly familiar pattern: a formally worded statement, albeit distributed on a variety of platforms ranging from uniformed runners to the telegraph, teleprinter and fax machine.
The humble press release is now undergoing a digital makeover, arguably the biggest shake-up in the history of the format, as companies exploit the information superhighway to disseminate news, earnings information, transactions, and all manner of corporate material.
But more companies need to realize the full potential of the internet and technology to enhance their communications tools. True, global distribution is far easier – a click of the button can transmit a corporate statement to a huge audience in seconds. But the content of those releases does not always provide the recipient with a richer user experience.
The proliferation of social media in recent years has led to a number of “PR 2.0” social media releases, which include graphics, audio, video and social media widgets such as RSS, Digg, Technorati, Fark and Del.icio.us. These are essentially an exercise in leaving the digital A4 behind and turning the content into a blogosphere-friendly multimedia smorgasbord.
But many companies have seen more risks than opportunities from such technology. They fear losing control of the message and many remain particularly worried about losing control of the audience to which releases are distributed.
While many forms of digital interaction and self-expression remain inappropriate for business communications, aspects of digital technology could and should be applied to corporate releases.
These include speed, searchability and relevance. Today’s business audience expects corporate communications to keep pace, at least, with advances in other aspects of technology, be it wireless internet, 3G telephony or instant messaging. That willingness to engage with new media on the part of business follows the improvements seen in web connectivity and design in the past five years.