In public relations, there’s a tendency to develop an unhealthy attachment to our best practices – letting them go unquestioned even when they’ve reached a point of obsolescence and inefficiency. The humble press list is a good example of this phenomenon.
To be fair, they were useful once. When journalism was a career rather than an erratic, poorly-remunerated series of contract gigs, it was very useful to have a press list of every major writer for every major industry or national publication. People even used to send out hard copies of press releases. In the digital age, when journalists move from job to job – or out of the profession entirely – as a matter of course, they’re something of an anachronism.
So why do they persist, and what can we do to kill them?
Stop the generic press release distribution list
Press lists are, at heart, a neat way of impressing new or prospective clients who don’t have the best subject matter knowledge. They believe, more or less, that the best thing an agency can do is send the same press release to as many journalists as possible in the hope that it results in some positive – or even neutral – coverage. Despite the advent of sophisticated databases and, well, Twitter, they endure.
And it’s quite a shame that they do. Journalists are a busy and embattled species. They receive more press releases every day than any person could reasonably be expected to read. Targeting them with a generic, catch-all list of everybody who’s ever written a blog post is unlikely to work: you may get a few bites, but you could also get consigned to the spam folder forever – costing you a potential connection and costing your clients valuable future coverage. You will also inevitably get many bounces from journalists who’ve drifted into different jobs or out of the profession entirely. A lot of this job is about howling into the void, but you don’t have to take it quite so literally.
Impressing the press
Instead of loading up your press list, hitting ‘send’, and retiring for a gentle workday full of woodworking podcasts, take the time to get to know your audience. Don’t half-arse it: understand the publication, understand the journalist, and understand what they care about.
If you pay attention to the individuals who move between jobs, you’ll know how to pitch them when they move to a different media outlet – and if you build up a good enough relationship, they’ll trust you more than other PRs. In 2017, journalism is fluid. Get to know the people and you’ll keep the relationship wherever they move.
Doing the former requires a lot more effort than simply gathering a list of maybe-relevant writers and sending them a press release about your client’s revolutionary whatever software. It’s essential to cultivate relationships with these writers: follow them on social media, talk to them at industry events, invite them to the cricket – act like a normal person trying to make friends. Your motives might be professional, but you should sincerely enjoy building rapport and talking to people. Otherwise, what are you doing in communications?
When it comes to press lists, their functions can be quite literally performed by your computer. If you’re going to rely on them instead of the meat and potatoes of the job – actually, you know, speaking to your fellow humans – then you should probably do something else.
Journalists are not sat there, jaw agape, waiting for your client’s new product or service to be pre-chewed and deposited into their mouths like baby birds. You need to make an effort. A generic press release sent to an outdated press list won’t cut it.