Is it possible to go beyond press releases?

I was at a debate last month organised by the Media Standards Trust on ‘Churnalism’ (there is a video from the BBC College of Journalism). It centered around the PR/journalism relationship and the proliferation of press releases. It was mentioned that 90% of press releases never got any coverage, which is extraordinary considering the industry around them.

Yet what’s also notable is that we continue to perceive press coverage as the primary desired outcome of a press release. From a post by Alistair Wheate, from Glide Technologies, entitled ‘Would anyone read your news if they weren’t paid to’?

Who is the target audience for your press releases? If the answer that comes to mind is ‘journalists’ then think again. Do journalists buy your products or services? They might do if you are a well-known consumer brand, but probably not. The real audience is likely to be a mix of your current or potential customers, investors (where applicable), current and future employees, partners and range of other important stakeholders.

Journalists are in most cases an intermediary audience. You communicate with them in the hope that they will say good things (or not say bad things) about your brand that in turn will influence opinion towards your brand amongst those who make an impact on your business.

At the moment, especially in PR which isn’t consumer focused, we are perhaps still too hooked on the idea that public relations is based on media coverage. But what’s the point in achieving those column inches or broadcast time? In order to reach those key audiences, to establish and improve their perception of us, to influence the wider public debate and decision makers. The media are a conduit for this.

But we compete within an environment where users can consume media across borders, time-zones, platforms and outlets, and where those of us in PR still battle with each other for precious space in traditional media. As it’s the area I’m in, I’d ask how can universities add at least another string to their bow when it comes to promoting their work?

Alistair recommends one solution:

Take a new approach to how the story is presented. You may be able to get away with presenting a boring wall-of-text press release if the only people you expect to read it are those who are actually paid to do so. This is particularly true for larger companies who can get away with very lazy presentation – journalists will write about you anyway just because you are such a big player. If you write with the notion in mind that you want a more general audience to choose to read your story over and above other stories on the web then presentation becomes much more important. It’s no longer a case of a journalist choosing to read your bland press release over and above someone else’s bland press release but a potential customer choosing to read your story versus an engaging well-written blog post or news story.

Universities have an opportunity to leapfrog the mainstream media and explain our research, teaching and wider contributions to society in forms beyond the text-based press release. Whether it’s video, audio, slideshows or hosting debates, events and using social media to engage with different stakeholders, it seems like an inevitable direction. We have websites, and access to the tools needed to reach the public.

Content is still king, but new ways of telling our stories are also essential.

(Fiona Fox of the SMC, who chaired the MST debate, posted on it)

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