What’s the biggest problem in public relations right now? The press release. But isn't there a better way? Welcome to the wonderful world of "story ideas."

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Think about everything you know about public relations, publicity, and social media. 

Ok, now forget it.

Forget everything you've ever heard from the PR industry.  Forget what your friend said who works at a PR agency.  Forget the advice you received from that tech conference speaker.

Starting right now, we're going peel back the layers of traditional PR.  We're going to trim the fat.  We're going to focus on what can get us better results in less time.

So are you ready to create a new type of PR that's leaner, meaner, and cleaner?  Let's do some PR hacking.

Hacking the Press Release

For many companies, the press release is thought of as the necessary first step in any PR campaign.

A typical press release involves announcing a piece of company news that the higher-ups deem important enough to send out to the media. To write a press release, you might start with the words "FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE" and then go on to describe the new product or feature.  You'd probably include a quote from one of the company’s founders, followed by some factoids and statistics that support the company’s pedigree.

Are you bored already?

That's because a press release is the epitome of what we call "me first" PR.  This type of PR assumes that the company or organization issuing the press release is very important indeed.

"Me first" PR also assumes that this company or organization has something very significant to say.  The word "release" is especially appropriate:  It implies that you've got some incredible news tucked away in a secret place and finally, at long last, you are releasing it to the world.

Remember when the new pope was announced and white smoke billowed from the Vatican?  That's the approach that most start-ups take when they issue a press release. It's like they're saying, "Hey, Mr. Media Guy, we've got some super big, awesome news... please, pretty please, can you come our way?"

Unless you are the Catholic Church, this method will not work.  In fact, issuing a press release can actually slow down and hurt your chances of getting press attention.

To understand why, let’s go through the life cycle of a typical press release:

  1. Write the press release.
  2. Distribute the press release on a wire service like PR Newswire or PRWeb. (These are agencies that distribute and syndicate news for a fee.)
  3. Watch your press release get “picked up” automatically by websites that aggregate releases. (Hey, it's free content for them.)
  4. Hope that a few bloggers or small news outlets see your release and write something about it. (Who knows, maybe it's a slow news day.)
  5. Pray that a bigger, more influential journalist reads the press release, likes the content, and calls you for an interview.

So can this actually work?  Rarely.  With thousands of companies, organizations, and individuals competing for news coverage every day, it's exceedingly unlikely that your press release will attract the attention of a top-tier editor, producer, journalist or blogger — let alone one who will call you up and develop a story for publication or broadcast.

Why is this? It's because you are not a Very Important Brand (VIB). You’re not Apple, or Microsoft, or Netflix. These are blue chip brands that are afforded the luxury of being able to practice “me first” PR because anything they do is considered news by the media.

Consider, for a moment, the history of the press release.  

Written in 1906, the first press release was created specifically because a big company, the Pennsylvania Railroad, had a major accident in which 50 passengers were killed.

The company's PR representative, Ivy Lee, wrote a statement about the incident on behalf of the company so that it could tell its side of the story before rumors were spread in the media.  The New York Times reprinted Lee's eloquent statement and the legend of the press release was born.

Simply put, the press release format was developed specifically to help Very Important Brands state their side of the story to the media.

If you are not a big brand and you don't need to clarify your side of the story, then the press release was not designed for you.

So why then is the press release still so commonplace?  It's because VIBs issue press releases and Baby Start-Ups (BSUPs) tend to imitate the big boys.  

But if you only remember one thing from this tutorial, remember this:  PR for start-ups or small businesses is a fundamentally different game than PR for big companies.  (This is one of the reasons why large PR firms have so much trouble with start-up PR.)  

And a lot has changed since 1906.

Introducing the "Story Idea" (Cool Story, Bro)

An alternative to "me first" PR is what we call a "you first" approach.  To practice "you first" PR, you've got to learn to think like a journalist.  You've got to puts their needs, not your needs, first.

To start off, you can break the ice by providing them with some information that would actually be useful to them and their audience, even if your company or product was never mentioned.  Next, you can package this information in a way that is easy for them to use and understand.  You can make them look good.  You can help them impress their bosses.  Maybe they'll even get a big, fat raise.

This helpful information you're providing is called a "story idea."Story ideas beat press releases (almost) every time.

For a moment, imagine you're a journalist. Imagine you're overworked, tired, underpaid, and have an editor breathing down your throat to bring up those ratings, circulation numbers, or page views. As a journalist, you're constantly looking for that next big story to share with your readers — something that will really engage them and make them want to click, or buy the edition of the paper, or tune in to the evening news after watching that teaser.

If you were to receive something in your inbox that would help you accomplish this, wouldn't you be grateful?  In the sea of unsolicited email that you receive everyday, wouldn't some helpful suggestions for stories or segments really stand out from the crowd?

In a nutshell, that's the difference between a press release and a story idea.

A press release is all about your company and your product. A press release might introduce a new feature, talk about a new hire, or announce a new partnership. A press release invites journalists to contact you if they are interested in your pitch, your angle.

On the other hand, a story idea is a suggestion for an article, column, segment, or blog post that is "bigger" than your company and more "newsworthy" than your new offering.  

A story idea could be about something that’s been in the news lately, a new trend you've observed, or some new statistics that you may have compiled. It will somehow relate to your start-up — allowing you to promote your product or service alongside it — but the relationship might not be immediately clear.

It's your job to come up with story ideas that, by their very nature, intrinsically promote what it is that you do or sell. 

 For example, if your start-up is a mobile diet app or a dating app, you might pitch a story idea that discusses your recent finding that most of your male users prefer women who are body confident as potential wives — and would only be interested in dating or having a one-night stand with women are not proud or confident about their weight — no matter what their weight may be.

Better yet, if your diet or dating app's new feature somehow relates to body image or body confidence, you'll be secretly highlighting one of your key selling points in the very fabric of the story. 

Wouldn’t a story like this be really interesting to journalists or bloggers?  And if you're handing them something that their audiences will surely want to watch or read wouldn't those reporters will pay you back in kind by linking back to your website, app download page, or Kickstarter project?

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So are press releases dead?

Well, let's not say dead, but they might be getting a triple bypass.

In general, press releases should not be used by start-ups.  We say “in general” because there are some instances when it might be useful to send out a standard release. These instances include:

  • When you’re partnering up with another, larger brand — or participating in a large conference — and you can promote your news release throughout the partner’s massive network.
  • When you’re creating a massive marketing campaign complete with a "you-first" story idea, a press release can sometimes be a good supporting document that can travel along with your other materials.
  • When you just want to post some recent milestones in the "press" section of your website and the press release is a handy format.

But take a deep breath.  Kindly remove your hands from the keyboard.  Give someone a big hug.  By ditching the press release and going with story ideas instead — and by switching gears from "me first" to "you first" PR — you'll get the results that your start-up deserves.  

Eventually, you might even become one of those Very Important Brands.

And then you won't need to go to the media — because they'll come to you.