PR book On-line Readings in Public Relations by Michael Turney
Working with the media:
Issue news and feature story releases
© 1998 Michael Turney Table of contents Practicing Public Relations main page About the author

"Most of the flood of news releases and statements and long-winded speeches we editors get is sheer trash-bait. They're issued more for the greater glorification of your powers-that-be than for serious consideration for space in the paper or time on the air."
-- Frank Martineau, editor emeritus
Association Trends, speaking to PR practitioners

News releases are the most recognized aspect of media relations.

When an organization issues a news release or a feature story release it's putting its own story in words and delivering it to the media in a format the media can make use of. The most common form of release remains words on a page, although many of these pages are now electronically transmitted -- by fax, modem, or wire service -- rather than being delivered as hard copy.

Releases tell your story in your way.

The ideal from a public relations' perspective is for the media to use a release exactly as submitted without changing anything. In that case, the organization is telling its own story in its own words instead of having a third party -- e.g., a reporter -- tell it from his or her perspective. But, that won't happen unless the public relations person who writes the release is thoroughly knowledgeable about media style and values and reflects that in what and how they write.

But, their fate is in the hands of the media.

What's more likely to happen, is that a news release which is perceived as newsworthy by the media will be edited and/or rewritten in ways that turn it into the media's version of the story rather than the public relations person's view of the story.

Whatever happens to releases once they're issued is beyond the control of the public relations person who releases them. These decisions are strictly the prerogative of the editors, news directors, and other media gatekeepers who very jealously guard them. Large or small, local or national, the media control their own content, and public relations practitioners cannot demand anything be included -- or excluded -- as editorial content.

So, much to the chagrin of public relations practitioners who write news releases, many are simply discarded by the media.

"I must have sifted through thousands of press releases and fielded hundreds of phone calls from local business owners and their public relations people... Most of the press releases end up in the trash. The reason: They just aren't news."
-- Rosalind Resnick, former business writer
The Miami Herald

Selective rather than blanket distribution has become the norm.

In the past, some public relations practitioners operated like news release factories, churning out as many releases as possible and distributing all of them to all possible media, even to the extent of sending copies to several reporters who worked for the same medium. For many it was just a matter of playing the percentages and thinking that the more the sent out, the more likely they were to have at least some of them used. Others justified blanket distribution as a matter of fairness, saying they didn't want to appear to be playing favorites by sending releases to some media but not to others.

But, as increasing numbers of practitioners matured beyond the publicity and explanatory phases of public relations and began thinking in terms of building meaningful relationships, even with the mass media, the use of news releases also matured. Practitioners began thinking in terms of tailoring their releases to fit specific media. For some, this meant paring down their distribution lists to selectively targeted media and distributing fewer copies of each release. For others it meant preparing and distributing multiple, slightly different copies of each release that could be selectively mailed to different media without reducing the total number of media to whom they sent releases. At its most basic level, the latter approach meant preparing a print media version of the release using AP style guidelines and a separate broadcast version using RTNDA style guidelines that might also include sound bites and/or B-roll video. It also meant preparing several localized versions of a release instead of a single version meant for nation-wide distribution.

Practitioners who conscientiously and effectively applied targeted approaches found that they really worked. They experienced a marked increase in the percentage of releases they issued that were actually used by the media, and they often found that the media's stories were longer and more favorable. For some, personal relationships with reporters and editors were also enhanced.

Some of the best and most experienced public relations practitioners had used this tactic for years, but it hadn't gotten a lot of attention. Then, during the mid-1990's there was a flurry of trade journal articles, workshops, and conference presentations touting its success. In one of those oft-quoted articles pr reporter urged practitioners to quit gambling on getting media coverage and "to consider creating a surgical media strategy."

"Surgical" means precisely what the term implies: placements in exactly the right media for your purpose.
  • It requires knowing which media your target stakeholders actually read, watch, or hear. Assumptions are dangerous, so intelligence work is needed.
  • In issue cases or legislative support, it may mean targeting a single key person and placing a story in the medium he reads -- or has clipped for him. A single such placement is worth a folder of untargeted clips.
  • Deal with key reporters ... face to face. Build lasting relationships that serve the journalists. Call, make personal contact to place stories -- and never use computer address labels on anything, since it signals that "10,000 other reporters are on the same mailing list."
-- pr reporter (5/04/98)

Six months after this article pr reporter (11/09/98) presented findings from The 30th Survey of the Profession which asserted that "situational media usage (is) replacing news release bombardment" and explained "that practitioners no longer feel duty-bound to send announcements to all media." According to the survey, 69 percent of the repondents "surgically choose media we want to reach," while only 23 percent said they continue to "send releases to all media hoping for as much publicity as possible."

Contrary to the assertion of some critics, news releases are not a dead or obsolete technique. But, their effective use is very different than it used to be. Instead of treating a news release like a shotgun that fires dozens of information "pellets" in a broad, sweeping pattern that might simultaneously hit several targets at one time, savvy practitioners today use their news releases like a sniper's rifle that is very carefully aimed to solidly impact a precise target.

Service providers such as those described below offer help with the distribution/delivery of news releases.
PR Web:
The Free Wire Service

PR Web came into existence in 1997, just few years after the World Wide Web, to serve public relations practitioners and journalists by offering an Internet-based distribution network for news releases. PR people submit their releases to PR Web which then distributes them directly to some or all of the 60,000 media companies and individuals who subscribe to its services.

News Broadcast Network

The News Broadcast Network (NBN) has been producing and distributing audio and video news releases and providing media relations assistance to clients who want to tell their story via radio or television for 25 years. Its services steadily expanded and became more sophisticated as technology advanced. It now offers direct satellite distribution of VNRs, webcasting, and other alternative ways to distribute messages via the Internet as well as broadcast and cable media.

How to write news releases
(pdf tip sheet)
Return to
Working with the media
The fifth step:
News conferences
Can you spot PR efforts in the news? Keeping pace with changes in journalism
25 Aug 2011