I've seen this happen before. From the outside, the PR world must look like a single, clueless entity. It must be great fun to descend upon us, enter our neighborhood,and start a public rumble. And, of course, it makes for great copy.
That seems to be what happened this week when blogger Stowe Boyd paid his first visit to Third Thursday, a monthly Bay Area meetup for PR pros. (Third Thursday -- which I co-founded last year with PR bloggers Mike Manuel, Jeremy Pepper, and Phil Gomes -- went dark for a few months, and is now back with the support of Jen McClure and Chris Heuer). I was out of town this week, so I missed the event. But the topic was the "social media press release," and the conversation failed to impress Stowe. His post created quite a stir, generating lots of smart comments, as well as the usual barrage of flak-baiting blather we get whenever there's an opportunity to attack the PR industry as a whole.
I happen to agree with many of Stowe's observations; in my opinion, the social media news release is an inconvenient distraction from the real task at hand, which is getting businesses to understand what social media is in the first place, how it changes the rules, and how it challenges received wisdom and ancient corporate communication tools like, er, the press release. But to tell clients to scrap releases altogether is naive (I'll refrain from saying "clueless"), and fails to address the other folks (not PR folks) that need some education. Folks like:
CFOs: in the minds of many CFOs, the standard press release satisfies the requirement of uniform public disclosure. There is a legitmate debate as to whether blogs get the kind of distribution to satisfy that requirement. Many smart PR folks are on the right side of that debate. But the debate is not over.
News organizations: yes, even news organizations suffer from this bias. There were several times over the past year when reporters -- smart reporters -- have asked me for a copy of the press release before taking a live briefing, because the release supposedly represented something better than the candid blurbs and observations that the company would otherwise provide. Reporters like that the standard release represents what's official -- i.e., what has been vetted by everyone responsible for the company's public and legal representations (including, sometimes, the CFO).
Folks like Stowe understand that there's a real revolution going on here, and they can't be bothered with half-measures. But until our work is done with the existing gatekeepers (like the three above; there are others), there's little we can do about press releases but improve the way they are written. I believe that this is what the new-release folks are talking about. The consistent themes have been, "get rid of bullshit quotes," "adopt a more direct and personal style of writing," "add meaningful content and links." Sounds right to me. And it reminds me of what I've been telling clients over and over again these past few years: the press release was perhaps the first social-media tool, because it gave businesses the power to play God just like the media. Hell, even bloggers play that game. Problem is, we're all "atheists" today, and we'd prefer to hear the human voice. It's time for all of us to get real.
UPDATE: Check out Shel Holz's podcast of the event.