The Lowly Press Release Becomes Most Trusted Communications Vehicle

January 4th, 2008

I read the news today, Oh, boy.

I think it was Mark Twain’s public relations guy that said “Rumors of the death of the press release have been greatly exaggerated.” 
















Turns out, the modern press release – that fact-spewing, message infusing document that reporters love to hate – has a new fan club: knowledge workers  (otherwise knows as business people that use information).  According to a new survey, the press release has just leaped into the lead position as the number one source of information.

The recent survey by Outsell, a California research firm, asked 5,740 knowledge workers to name their most used content for business information.  For years, to no one’s surprise, trade journals held the top spot.  Seems reasonable.  But from out of nowhere, press releases have soared to the top.  Who saw this one coming?  We all did.

Rodger Strouse, the Outsell VP, posits several possible explanations for the rising popularity of press releases. “It may be that press releases are easier for people to get their hands on,” he says. “It may be that press releases are shorter and pithier. It may be that they’re oftentimes free and come right into an RSS reader.”   I’d add to that the fact that unlike almost any other form of communication, press releases are held to a journalistic standard that increases their credibility and reduces the room for spin.

The modern press release was the brainchild of Ivy Lee, who is often referred to as the first real public relations practitioner. 






Lee invented the format to help control media for his client, The Pennsylvania Railroad, at the turn of the century.  On October 28, 1906, at least 50 people lost their lives when a three-car train of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s newly equipped electric service jumped a trestle at Atlantic City, NJ, and plunged into the Thoroughfare creek.  Following the accident, Lee not only convinced the railroad to distribute a public statement, he also convinced them to provide a special train to get reporters to the scene of the accident.

The New York Times was so impressed with this innovative approach to corporate communications that it printed the first press release—verbatim—on Oct. 30, 1906 as a “Statement from the Road.”


In the weeks that followed, both newspapers and public officials effusively praised Pennsylvania Rail road for its openness and honesty. 

But the PR honeymoon didn’t last long.  The following spring, some upstate coal operators hired Lee to represent them during a strike. When he mailed out the second press release, journalists started expressing hostility, calling it an ad disguised as a story sent to manipulate news coverage.

Ahh, the advent of the modern hostile reporter. 

In response, Lee issued a “Declaration of Principles” that stated, “This is not a secret press bureau. All our work is done in the open. We aim to supply news. If you think any of our matter ought properly to go to your business office, do not use it.”  Those principles stand today to guide many a PR effort. 

The take-away for me is that classic tools like the press release are becoming more relevant in a cluttered world.  I’d go further to say PR as a marketing discipline shares this honor as most effective way to reach busy people looking for facts, not spin.  And look how the press release has adapted to 100 years of new media.  Congratulations press release.  And congratulations Philadelphia, the birthplace of the modern press release. 

Now if someone could just properly announce your win…







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