Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Social media press releases vs. real news

The battle between paid wire services about who can out "social media" the other guy has escalated to the point where PR Newswire boasted last September that its clients had more pickup than its competitors.

There's no question, paid wire services have become very web-savvy vehicles. (Full disclosure: Business Wire was a client of mine for six months in 2008.)

However, to me, shooting out distinctly labeled press releases on irrelevant sites like earthtimes.org and remodeling.net is like splattering spaghetti blindly across a wall and calling it art (my apologies to Jackson Pollack).

I believe that companies and PR firms send out far too many and rely too much on press releases, while categorizing them somehow as "news." Press releases are not a substitute for actually grooming relationships with the press, developing a strategy, and producing an honest-to-God credible campaign of real stories written by actual media.

However, not everybody agrees with me. There are some places who place a lot of faith in the power of social media-engineered press releases as a tool to drive traffic, not necessarily sincerity. Silicon Valley tech PR firms, who never met a client they could not stop sending a press release for on a weekly basis, clearly have some method to their madness to justify this strategy.

So I had to see how the other half lives by contacting Todd O'Donald, founder of green lifestyle web site ecomii, who regularly cranks out paid press releases over Business Wire. If you look ecomii up on Google, you'll find there are more press releases on the first few search pages than actual stories written about ecomii. As far as I can see, this has been their primary public relations effort for at least the past six months.

"From our perspective, press releases help with SEO (provide a base of inbound links on third party sites) and provide some credibility to company claims/milestones, etc for the trade," he wrote. "I don't think they have much if any real 'media value.' With an all you can eat press release contracts, they provide decent value."

But Todd, is there any correlation between traffic being driven by SEO/inbound links and ad sales/new business? Is there an actual ROI that you have seen other than higher Google rankings? Or is the actual ROI when people type in "ecomii" in Google, they get a whole lot of press releases?

"There is a high correlation between seo/inbound links and increased traffic and our traffic success has a high correlation with ad sales/new business," he replied. "In terms of credibility and 'trades,' I was referring to potential advertisers and investors. Having press releases show up when people type in ecomii is not of much value to us. I still believe there is a lot of value in 'real media' but 'press releases' can still have tactical value."

Is it better to just hire an SEO consultant than a PR firm which will perform a few of those basic functions if that's all you want is traffic, not credibility?

Conveniently, fellow PR pro Peter Himler drew my attention today to a post written by leadership and marketing guru Seth Godin called "The difference between PR and publicity." He couldn't have explained it better why there's something fundamentally unsound about a campaign based on spewing out press releases instead of actually practicing real public relations. It's short and sweet, so I'm going to let Godin tell it in his own words in this excerpt:

Most PR firms do publicity, not PR.

Publicity is the act of getting ink. Publicity is getting unpaid media to pay attention, write you up, point to you, run a picture, make a commotion. Sometimes publicity is helpful, and good publicity is always good for your ego.

But it's not PR.

PR is the strategic crafting of your story. It's the focused examination of your interactions and tactics and products and pricing that, when combined, determine what and how people talk about you...

If you send out a boring press release, your publicity effort will probably fail, but your PR already has.

A publicity firm will tell you stories of how they got a client ink. A PR firm will talk about storytelling and being remarkable and spreading the word. They might even suggest you don't bother getting ink or issuing press releases.

In my experience, a few people have a publicity problem, but almost everyone has a PR problem. You need to solve that one first....

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