Press releases: how to go beyond waste, fraud, and abuse

Stop writing and distributing press releases. Please. They’re stupid, annoying, and useless. And according to an analysis by Christopher Penn of Shift Communications, they don’t work.

I spent 20 years as an analyst at Forrester Research. During that time, I received 10,000 press releases. I estimate that about 200 had even the tiniest amount of relevance to me. Even of those 200, 80% of the words were meaningless fluff. That’s about about 20,000 meaningful words out of 8.5 million total words, for a pathetic little meaning ratio of:


That is waste on an epic scale.

Chart: Shift Communications

Christopher Penn’s analysis shows how useless releases are

Penn, who is VP of Marketing at Shift, a PR firm, shares a few press release facts that he figured out:

  • PR people create 1,000 press releases a day. They’ve created 236,356 of them this year.
  • The median number of clicks on one of those releases is zero.
  • The median number of social media shares is two.
  • The median number of inbound links is one.

And as Penn points out, since Google devalued press release distribution, they add no SEO value, either.

Waste, Fraud, and Abuse

Politicians hoping to save money on programs like Medicare insist they will root out waste, fraud, and abuse. It’s a lie: waste, fraud, and abuse are expensive to identify in any provable way.

But for public relations professionals, waste, fraud, and abuse are in plain sight, in the hundreds of thousands of press releases they’re creating every year.

They’re wasteful because, as Penn demonstrates, hardly anyone is reading them.

They’re fraudulent because they’re always, always filled with weasel words and jargon, making them come off as unmitigated bullshit. That’s why press releases are such fodder for this blog. Like Macy’s doubletalk about store closings. Or Samsung’s evasions about flaming phones. Or Pepsi’s blithering about a trendy new bar.

And they’re abusive because they’re sent like spam, and ignored like spam. They pollute the atmosphere of our inboxes. For every particle of value there’s a truckload of annoyance. They clearly state: “I don’t care if I pester you.”

What to do instead

If you want to know how to spend your energy, spend it on useful content instead. That’s the content marketing manta, and I support it.

Most press releases have no reason for being. Just don’t do them.

But sometimes you need to announce things. How should you do it?

Do it the way Google does. In blog posts.

Do it the way Apple does. In an open letter.

(Ironically, these are two companies whose press releases people actually read, but they’ve developed these other channels and used them effectively.)

Follow these principles:

  • Write directly in the voice of the spokesperson. It could be the CEO, the CMO, or the head of PR, but write in the first person. Use “I” and “we.” It’s hard to write overly promotional drivel in the first person, which is a useful brake on the tendency to inflate.
  • Put the news in the heading. For example, “Our new CEO, Mike Smith, will expand our connections with the startup world.”
  • Explain what you did and why it is important. Say you introduced a new product or got an award. But can the superlatives.
  • Cite facts. Give us numbers.
  • Invite conversation. It’s a social world.

I can hear you saying “We can’t do this for every release, it will sound unnatural. We can’t have the CEO write directly about everything we do a release on.”

Great. Write promotional stuff less often. And don’t worry, you sound pretty unnatural already.

Writing press releases is a habit, like junk food. Quit. Promote in a healthy way. We’ll thank you for it.

Note: this post is adapted from Chapter 23, “Promote Intelligently,” in my book Writing Without Bullshit.

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  1. Admire and respect you Josh, but as you know, this PR veteran turned professor disagrees. Yes, many press releases are poorly written and targeted to the wrong people. (Yuck!) A well-written press release (in the third-person please!) announcing a significant and ideally newsworthy development provides an official vetted statement from an organization and lives on in digital archives and Google searches. I will say that fewer releases rather than a ton of them for every little corporate snivel is the way to go. And, of course, a release should be targeted for those journalists, bloggers and analysts who are most likely to have a direct interest in the content.

    1. Rick, you’re a top thinker in this area. The problem is not you, or people who think like you. It’s the thousands of idiots flooding all our inboxes with stupid, irrelevant, overwritten crap. I’d love to have an actual debate about it with your students as the audience . . .

      1. Like waste, fraud, and abuse of a program, the hardest part is rooting out the people who one might classify as “the idiots.”

      2. Love the idea of a debate before a group of students. Also, the PRSA has a sector called New Pros that might have an interest. Perhaps we could promote a bit and stream to a wider audience. Something to noodle on.

  2. I LOVE this article, and I’m putting it in my back pocket for a much needed discussion in which evidence will be helpful. I’ve just taken on a Corp. Comm. Director role after 12 years in the agency world, and I’m learning pretty quickly that the company has developed some terrible “habits” with how they abuse press releases and “publicity,” and how corp comms is abused as a whole by many in the company who don’t understand the real role/value of PR and request releases for the lowest level new hires, blast emailing them (seriously, without any type of pitch AT ALL!), and I’m getting push back when I say no.