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.