In defence of the press release

I saw this Tweet during Talk About Local’s annual unconference. My reaction was similar to the author’s – press releases pushed straight into print can’t be a good.

But the more I thought about, and thought about it in the context of the Media Standards Trust Churnalism search engine, the more I think we’re getting it wrong when it comes to press releases.

Surely the problem with press releases isn’t if they appear in print or online largely unchanged, it’s if they see the light of day without being checked in the first place.

The Media Standards Trust search engine basically lets you paste in a press release and then see articles which appear to have done a fair bit of copying and pasting from it.

But all that appears to do is demonstrate that a journalist has looked at the press release and decided that they couldn’t have written it any better, then included it in an article. That’s fine for establishing that – but there’s more to it.

It does nothing to tell us whether a journalist has checked the facts of a story, or what additional content they’ve added.

Twenty years ago, very few stories would have come from press releases. The PR industry has exploded since then, and many journalists have crossed that dark divide from journalism to PR. Many journalists are members of the National Union of Journalists (although the merits or otherwise of that is a whole different post for another occasion) and it shouldn’t be a surprise that press releases can find their way, largely unaltered, into publications.

After all, surely that is why journalists are sought after for PR posts – because they know how to get something into the news. Writing the press release in a way which makes it easy for journalists to check the facts and move on is surely part of that. And, just as an aside, any journalist-turned-PR who finds themselves saying to a newsdesk ‘I’m sorry, the client insisted I write it this way’ needs to have a bit of a think.

It would be very easy to take a press release, re-write it and then stick it into the paper and consider it job done. In the eyes of the churnalism website, it wouldn’t be churnalism.

But what about the need to get views from another side? The need to check facts? The need to see if there’s another story in the press release waiting to get out?

Take, for example, a series of press releases from the Keep Britain Tidy group recently about their survey of the brands you find on litter most frequently. Many media organisations produced articles based on their findings, and the press release. New resembled the press release.

But few also went to the trouble of getting responses form the brand involved. The Manchester Evening News was the exception to the rule in that it did go all the companies named and got their reaction. The result? A story which began life with a press release but which was much more rounded by the time it saw the light of day.

There are, of course, different shades of press releases. Will Perrin, founder of Talk About Local, spoke recently at a seminar for Trinity Mirror’s news editors. He said he had no problem with republishing a police press release word-for-word on his site, Kings Cross Environment, stating clearly where it had come from.  Given that 95% of the content on Kings Cross Environment is unique content, adding straightforward press releases to a site, clearly marked, seems to be commonsense.

When I worked as a council reporter, I’d get maybe a dozen council press releases a day. Many were simple ‘this event is taking place at x’ and, given that several of the press officers were former colleagues, they would be written in a way which meant they could be turned into nibs quickly.  That would probably count as churnalism – but it’s also information which will be of interest to readers.

In hindsight, I’d still rewrite them, probably out of some sense of misguided professional pride. But why waste my time doing that when what had been written was fine as it was, save a small tweak for house style? Wouldn’t my time have been better spent looking at other press releases which threaten to have a good line in them but which need checking out, and additional information sourced?

Then, of course, come the corporate press releases. The ones which insist on shoving the name of the brand into the intro, seemingly oblivious to the fact that a) it reduces the chances of it being used and b) it will only get shoved further down if used before. These are most likely to be the ones we think of when we say press releases are bad. Potentially, they are a source of information, it’s just that the information is often hidden. Truth be told ‘New store to open’ is news to people – just not the 500 words the PR firm sends.

We receive more press releases than ever before. Information previously delivered over the phone – say from a WI or from a police inspector – or in person now arrives by press release.

The press release should be seen as just another source of information. They just happen to have the unique ability to be written in a way which is fit to go into print. A good local council PR will ensure their writing style suits that of the newspaper they want to appear in.

To me, press releases only become churnalism if they go into print unchecked and unverified – or are used to fill a space rather than because it is thought the information will be of interest to readers.

Press releases only become dangerous when they are the major source of all stories for an organisation. If we treat press releases in the same way that some journalists curate information online, we would surely waste less time re-writing and more time finding stories.

10 comments

  1. I think there’s another serious risk.

    There was a time when people reading a paper thought it was all written by staff reporters.

    Increasingly, the press release will also be carried on the originating organisation’s website and promo’d on Facebook/Twitter etc.

    I don’t think papers have woken up to the brand damage caused when someone sees something from the source online and then in the same form the next day in their paper.

    Quite rightly, they will ask ‘Why am I buying this?’

    Papers used to get away with being the middle man and publishing stuff organisations couldn’t – because they didn’t have a printing press.

    Now everyone has a digital printing press, serious questions are being asked about what true value many local papers actually provide.

  2. HI Dave, thanks for the comment. I agree with what you are saying but would add that it’s not just newspapers that fall into that category. The same also applies to local websites if they rely too heavily on press releases.

    We have to keep asking the question ‘what do newspapers/websites add?’ That’s why there should be more emphasis on challenging, rather than rewriting, press releases.

    I would add that just because everyone has access to a digital printing press, it doesn’t mean everyone will want to use it. You also have to bear in mind that there is still a value in a third-party publication of information – exactly why councils tried so hard to dress up their publications as newspapers.

  3. Think police news releases – especially missing persons – are well placed in local papers and hyperlocal websites. However, corporate (both in terms of local authority and commercial) can almost always be a source of highly questionable facts worth further exploration …

    1. Hi Russell, thanks for the comment. Agree with that. The sorts of press releases from the council I was thinking of were the ones announcing events, rather than bigger announcements.

  4. Cut and paste council press releases? Oh yes. In a world where story counts not story quality *counts* it’s a lifesaver. How else do you tick all the boxes of filling your quota and still get time to work on decent stories.
    So take one harmless press – children having their face painted (which isn’t news anyway and is – in fact – actually the problem of many local papers not the actual source of the material) or some such – and cut n’ paste into the paper.
    Now you have two options either continue until you’ve filled the paper or work on the story the council doesn’t wanting you working on and use that at the front of the paper.

    1. Hi, thanks for the comment. I’m not sure I agree with the idea that nib stories about face painting aren’t news. They probably aren’t the reason we came into journalism, but if the reader finds them useful, then surely they are worth including as nibs?
      I wasn’t suggesting we cut and paste all press releases into the paper.

  5. Just thought I’d comment as I seem to have indirectly inspired (if that’s the right word) this post. I agree with these thoughts and I certainly agree there’s a place for press releases. The point I was making in the TAL session was that when I use them as the basis for stories, I always state where the information has come from and link to the original source if it’s online. My local paper never does either, even when it reprints press releases word-for-word, something I didn’t realise it did until I started receiving the same ones!

    1. Thanks Richard. Interesting that you link to the original press release. Do you do this all the time? For newspapers, if the press release is ‘information only’ – eg about an event taking place, or a police appeal for information – I’m not sure it’s essential to say where the information came from. Checking it is accurate is more important, I think.

      That said, I’ve seen some newspapers which wrap all the police appeals into one column, which is effectively doing the same thing?

  6. One flaw of Churnalism.com is that journalists will often use press releases as part of a wider story. For example a chief constable may be quoted from a press release as part of a wider crime story. This would be flagged up by Churnalism.com as it would be a sequence of words as they appeared on the press release. But is it not good practice (assuming the reporter challenged anything questionable in the quote) to use a press release in this way?

  7. Thank you for an excellent article. Perhaps there are some valid reasons why churnalism might occur on an occasional basis, e.g. working a double shift whilst covering someone else’s post during sickness, but Dave is right; repeat offending leaves the reader thinking: “Why do I bother buying this?”

    Of course churnalism is not a recent phenomena, nor limited to press releases. Back in the old days, after having worked a shift in the Tape Room (of a Fleet Street paper) and exposed to all the wire reports from Reuters, Press Association, etc. just about the only place I felt I could go for a read of “fresh copy” was Lloyd’s List, The Public Ledger and The Morning Star!

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