The Social Media Press Release is Dead

Four years ago, technology journalist Tom Foremski deemed the press release “nearly useless,” a PR tool that is far more likely to line a trash can than to earn media coverage.

Fed up with the wasted effort and expense that goes into pushing out a press release, Foremski offered a new proposal: “deconstruct” the traditional press release into straightforward factual nuggets and list quotes from C-level executives that publishers could piece together to form a news story. By using tags to indicate company-generated content, journalists would be free to add their own angle without duplicating the effort that typically goes into rewriting facts.

The “Die! Press Release! Die! Die! Die!” blog post turned out to be something of a watershed moment for the public relations community. Foremski’s critique became the basis for the social media press release, an innovation many predicted would transform the industry.

The Earliest Version of the Social Media Press Release

Todd Defren, a principal at San Francisco-based SHIFT Communications, is credited for being the “creator” of the social media press release. SHIFT’s 1.0 template, released in 2006, rejected the narrative format entirely. Instead, it adopted Foremski’s bulleted list of core news facts and quotes, supplemented by media content and then-novel social media sharing features (e.g., “Digg This” and “Share on” functionality).

SHIFT’s template provoked heated debate in the PR world. My firm, for one, took issue with SHIFT’s suggested format of the “next generation” press release. We certainly embraced (and continue to embrace) a more conversational format for news releases. But we also think that eliminating narrative content altogether is a mistake.

Reducing content to bulleted lists fosters cynicism about the press. By trying to make life easier for journalists, the PR industry is basically sending the message that a reporter’s role involves little more that copying and pasting someone else’s text.

In addition, bulletpoints are usually just flat-out boring. Without context, a collection of standalone facts and quotes makes for a dry, choppy read. No one wants to spend their time reading unreadable content – not the general public nor journalists. Bullets can also create technical problems for syndicating content via email, making social media press releases largely unshareable.

The Evolution of the Social Media Press Release

SHIFT’s 1.5 template, released in 2008, made some concessions to these points. First, the title changed from “social media press release” to “social media news release,” an adjustment that reflects a growing industry consensus that news releases are no longer just for the press. Most importantly, in the “Core News Facts” section, the revised model allows for either bullet points or narrative content.

Other PR folks have gotten involved to make their own contributions to the social media release’s evolution:

- A group of PR pros from the United Kingdom’s Webitpr released their version of the Social Media News Release in 2007, recommending either deconstructed bulletpoints or narrative prose.

- Palette Public Relations’ Martin Waxman, along with Todd Defren, have advocated for taking the social media release to the next level with the social media newsroom template.

- Shel Holtz, an early and vocal proponent of the social media news release, continues to argue that the pick-and-choose format of a social media news release works.

Why the Social Media Press Release Failed

Yet, in reality, the social media release has never quite caught on. PR giant Edelman began offering social media press release services to clients back in 2006. Tellingly, however, every social media press release issued by the firm was accompanied by a “traditional” press release, written in narrative form. But a quick look at the firm’s StoryCrafter service shows that for the past two years, Edelman seems to have stopped producing social media press releases altogether.

The popularity of blogs, Twitter and Facebook makes the absence of social media press releases even more conspicuous. PR professionals are not afraid to try new social media tactics. The problem is that there is nothing truly social about the social media release, at least in the form that SHIFT and others have touted.

As new media expert Brian Solis pointed out in his critique of the social media release, a truly social medium is focused on sparking a two-way dialogue, not throwing together a bulleted list of facts surrounded by every multimedia format available. Right now, the social media release is nothing more than an oxymoron.

The social media release’s failure – and I should point out that there is, of course, mixed opinion about whether it is actually a failure at this point – implies there is a better approach.

Over the next few days, I will be doing a series of blog postings about what that approach entails. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Re-Thinking the Social Media Release

Part 1 | The Social Media Press Release is Dead

Part 2 | A Better Approach to the Social Media Release: Reach Three Audiences

Part 3 | A Better Approach to the Social Media Release: Reach Three Readers

Part 4 | The Key Components of a Better Social Media Release


Ask Adfero founder and CEO Jeff Mascott what it’s like to start a company, and he might tell you it’s a bit like training for a marathon. Both pursuits take discipline, commitment and resilience. But when it comes to running a business, race day doesn’t exist. With each subsequent victory (and the occasional setback), goals become increasingly more ambitious. And if you really want to be successful, you must become energized with each passing mile(stone), not exhausted. Read More
  • Mdoublester

    This is a fascinating article. I find the concept of a social media press release or news release a bit odd. As a writer I understand that readers rely on context to understand any story. A press release is after all telling a story. Advising that a companies stock prices rose by 50% might be relevant news, but without context that information is rather useless. When it comes to context detail is important to establishing relative importance of facts. I can't see how that could be done without a well crafted narrative. If the world has been reduced to tiny snippets of information for twitter, or bullet points to be scanned by impatient journalists, something important has been lost in the process. The real importance of any story, even those presented briefly in a press release is in the details.

  • Frank_Strong

    Nice break down of the industry discussion. I tend to think its much ado about nothing. As one commenter on this post, Are news releases social, said: people are social, not content. From my humble view, if we focus on writing good content, the socialization will take care of itself.

  • Taqiyyah Shakirah D

    A major reason social media press releases failed is because of the ephemeral mechanics of social media itself: it doesn't last long enough on any update screen to make much of a splash with just one showing. Even if it's a well targeted recurring release, it won't generate as much attention as a full content article will, because interested people want to read the full story, are subscribed already, got the news already from Mashable, etc.

    The other reason is that a press release waits for people to come to it. That's the opposite of life in the social media space. Smart companies build individual relationships with their audience and provide them with information about themselves in that context. Striking up a conversation about an event, answering ensuing questions, and providing extra details from a live, non-press audience requires skill, but it's more effective than declaring a merger in less than 140 characters and attaching a link. It lasts longer and has more potential to draw the attention of the followers of the people being engaged. Perhaps this shouldn't be called an official press release, but it has the same effect.

  • Martin Waxman

    I agree with you that bullet points do not a story make – and really that's what we, as communicators, are trying to do – tell stories. For me it's about writing in a compelling way and now, learning how to use visuals too. I still like the news release (or SMNR) style because it mirrors a newspaper article and we recognize the format – so it signals what we can expect. Should it continue to evolve? Absolutely. Looking forward to your series.

  • Shel Holtz

    I don't disagree with your recommendations and suggestions, which simply enhance the models for the social media release that already exist. My objection is to the notion that the social media release is dead. But then again, I object to nearly every post that proclaims some social media tool “dead,” from RSS to blogs. This kind of hyperbolic statement doesn't serve any good cause.

    First of all, while there hasn't been widespread adoption of the social media news release, there has been gradual uptake. Some large organizations use SMNRs quite effectively, from Cisco Systems to Ford Motor Company. If they're being used and are producing results, how can they be dead?

    Besides, I'd compare this notion to Tom Webster's recent analysis of the latest “State of Podcasting” report from Edison Research. While some decry the fact that 55% of the American public has never listened to a podcast, Tom retorts that 45% of Americans HAVE, and that's a hefty number. Incremental, organic growth is nothing to sneeze at. Not every innovation has to take off like the iPod in order to be deemed successful.

    There has been ample research to support the effectiveness of SMNRs. A Text 100 report showed that social media release produce greater usage; they also allow businesses “the opportunity to in essence tier target bloggers with unique opportunities or angles.” The Text 100 study showed bloggers prefer social media releases to traditional releases.

    A study from RealWire, a UK-based wire service that offers a Social Media Release option, analyzed 997 releases his company distributed from December 2008 to May 2009, 71 of which were SMRs. The results suggest that the SMRs earned double the coverage of traditional releases.

    Your objection to bullet points is fair, but there is no requirement that social media releases use them. That's a formatting choice made by some, not by others. Nobody has ever argued for a common look and feel.

    I've always chuckled at the idea that there's nothing inherently social about the social media release. There doesn't have to be. It's not the release that's social. It's content being made available to the producers of social content to aid in their social media coverage. As I've said before, I doubt all the angst over the social media release would have erupted had it been called, instead, the “social media press kit.”

    Still, they can be better, and your suggestions are good ones. But they're not recommendations to do something INSTEAD of an SMNR. They're approaches to doing SMNRs BETTER. I think that's great.

    But ultimately, that means that SMNRs are evolving, not dying. And they'll continue to do so for the foreseeable future.