Long Live the Press Release (And the Funding Announcement Too)

By HackerNoon May 6, 2024

Articles and posts headlined something like “The press release is dead” are strangely popular. Put that exact phrase into Google and it returns getting on for half a million hits.

It’s clickbait, of course. What the writers then go on to explain is that press releases are actually pretty important, if you have real news. The problem, they all agree, is that the format is being abused.

One of the most trenchant of those articles comes from Mike Butcher, Editor at Large of TechCrunch and one of the most experienced and influential tech journalists on the planet. But get past the headline and what Mike actually says is “The press release format has been abused to death. So use this format instead.”

He’s bang on, 100% right. The press release has been hijacked in the last two decades by corporate decision makers who, by and large, now insist on presenting information in a way that suits their marketing needs, rather than the news gathering and reporting needs of the journalist. These marketing geniuses concluded that, since press releases were being picked up, they could always smuggle in one more thing that shouldn’t be there. One more exaggeration here, one more hyperbole there. You could sound like the best thing since sliced bread and hit all the keywords sought after by investors on Google. At some point (for Mike it was 2015), it just got too much.

But saying that the way the press release is used has gone off the rails is a completely different argument from declaring that the entity is as dead as a parrot.

Does this matter? Yes, I really think it does. The risk here is that many founders seeking PR coverage for the first time might end up believing something that was only meant as a way of capturing your attention, and dissuaded from doing what’s most effective.

Oh and don’t get me started with what some are saying about PR and journalism both being dead. I won’t even go into that in this one.

Funding announcements are important too

A subset in the “press release death notice” genre is headlined something like “the fundraising announcement is dead”. Another one of those appeared recently in Inc. In that piece, the proposition is presented as an established fact with no attempt at evidence, either anecdotal or quantified. Instead of digging deeper into the press release, how to use it, how not to use it, it quickly brushes all that aside. It goes on with suggestions that other tactics may be more effective or desirable, effectively becoming a listicle of ‘different tactics available to do PR’.

This is a fallacy. Why would you, finding yourself with the opportunity to exploit news with a press release, not do so because it’s not on-trend according to some expert voice out there?

What’s really going on?

Let’s look at some hard data. Every year, Cision surveys several thousand journalists around the world to find out the latest journalism trends. In its latest report, it found that press releases remain the #1 source for generating content or ideas. It has been the same finding for about a decade now.

Clearly there is no inherent issue with the press release. The problem is the quality of a large percentage of releases. Nearly six in 10 journalists in the same survey say “they will block a communications professional who sends them pitches that sound like marketing brochures.” Particular gripes are the use of phrases like “industry-leading”, “ground-breaking” and “innovative”.

It seems journalists not only appreciate the press release when it is structured correctly for their needs, but they also very much need it as it best suits their fast-paced work needs. If only Gmail and others had a filter detecting the bad press releases.

Why the press release is NOT dead

Let’s dig a bit deeper into what’s working, what’s not, and why.

It’s not like I studied the global history of press releases or the origins of the inverted pyramid model. But clearly, things developed the way they did for a reason. It’s a structure that works for publicists and journalists alike.

In our Journalists Insights series, we’ve interviewed tech journalists and also found that they genuinely and explicitly appreciate press releases. Recently, a journalist shared with me an info pack she had been sent by a startup. They had an announcement to make, but instead of putting together a press release, they presented her with all the raw ingredients separately. While it looked tidy, resourceful, with links, and included a little FAQ section, for the journalist it wasn’t ideal. She had to spend extra time making sense of what were the more important bits, which bits had less weight and which needed to be filtered out altogether.

Let’s remember that many journalists are lacking time and, when it comes to news, things need to move fast. A correctly structured press release would have helped her scan the information, make sense of it, and digest it faster and better.

It’s not that journalists will copy and paste a press release. I actually don’t consider those sites that do to exist within the journalism universe. However, they would much rather get a semi-processed product and challenge it and dissect it if needed, rather than cook up something from scratch with a lot of raw ingredients.

It’s funny. There is definitely a wide range of pitches that should not have a press release as the main tactical approach. But the case I mentioned above was a funding announcement, the perfect situation to actually use a press release. Yet for some reason (I wonder which) the agency believed an info pack would be better.

News, speed, time, and the correct use of the press release

We all know about the mass layoffs going on in the industry. In journalism, this has been a trend for years. In the US alone, broadcast, print and digital outlets cut 2,681 journalism jobs in 2023, up 48% from 2022.

Technology has fundamentally disrupted the distribution of media and, with it, its business model. It has also affected the day-to-day way of working for journalists. And now, a wave of AI innovation is threatening to make matters even more complicated.

As a result, journalists dealing with news not only need to stay on top of trends, sources, etc, but when a private sector player has something to say, ideally they need to get it in a digestible format. It can’t be stressed enough: time is precious, it’s of the essence! There are fewer journalists than ever before facing a faster-moving and globalized information world than ever before. And in many cases, journalists are the soldiers in the front line of a business model that is failing. It’s a precarious position that forces them to look at output in terms of volume, and sacrifice more quality than they would like to (in general, there are many exceptions).

This is why the inverted pyramid of the press release is so effective. The most important things come first. The details later. The big picture stuff comes first, granular afterwards. ‘From generic to specific’ is the name of the game, something that is also taught in many areas of marketing. It’s how they teach people to structure content in a website. You don’t hit customers with tiny features first. You give them the benefits. It’s how salespeople are trained to structure consultative sales conversations. General questions first. It’s simply how humans best interpret data/information.

Now, this model also lends itself to exploitation by cheeky PRs: The use of certain language smuggled into releases; headlines that generate big interest but which then don’t correspond to the rest of the release; and (one of the worst of all) hyping something in a press release to pass it off as news or something of interest, when it’s fluff. All of this is terrible. But does it mean that press releases are dead?

Is eating dead because some people overeat? Is sport dead because some people get injured? No.

Although unfortunately, it has to be said that the level of abuse of the press release is way too damn high. There is little incentive for bad actors to behave in a good way. It’s just an email, isn’t it, what harm can it do.

The role of funding announcements

For startups, one of the most important early PR needs is the funding announcement. Why? It’s a business opportunity for startups, and it’s a newsworthy item for journalists. Startups get one of their first big validations in the media. Journalists get to see what bets investors in the market are taking and what interesting future innovations could await us.

Having previously been validated by investors, journalists can quickly grasp, “Aha, venture capital allocators are betting on this horse; let’s take a look at it more closely.” It’s also a bit of a cheat code for journalists. It’s like the money investors put in already tells them something about the potential significance of the startup, now or in the future. If some other interesting elements are there, then you are set up for what could be a very interesting bit of PR activity.

The article that results from this process is, in turn, useful for future investors. How the journalist describes the  start up can help new investors decide whether to make their own enquiries. There are other stakeholders who also benefit from this information. Global talent, for instance, who might want to know what it’s like to be a part of the team or what vision their potential future employer has about the future. Partner companies and potential clients will also want to know how they can benefit from working together.

Of course, there is likely to be more than one funding round. With each one, the startup changes, evolves. It could get stronger, more muscular, or leaner and lighter. At some point, it might even undergo metamorphosis into a creature with a horn.

The bigger the company becomes, the more scrutiny you get. Journalists will inspect it in new ways, reconsider its potential, look at new details and, yes, start looking at potential weaknesses.

The bigger your startup, the more newsworthy it will obviously be, meaning new outlets might be interested and different PR tactics leveraged to spread the word wider. The PR activity involved and power asymmetry with media players in your seed round could look completely different to that of your Series A or B, should you have further rounds. So make sure you’re aware of that.

Don’t be led astray by bad advice

I know that the most difficult task facing a writer is to get the reader’s attention in the first place. But using apocalypse-laden headlines over a more considered article could be doing more harm than good.

There are dozens or maybe even hundreds of startups every year that raise funding without announcing. They might not care, and that’s totally cool. They could be making loads of money and raising funds without needing any PR. However, for the startups that do care and see a value, we shouldn’t be directing them in the wrong direction by implying the press release no longer has a useful role to play. When it comes to funding, but also other announcements. The proof is in the pudding. For journalists the press release still has A LOT of value when used right.

This article was published originally by Mauro Battellini on HackerNoon.