Press Releases Emerge as New Ad/Media Channel

Press releases haven’t counted for much. But in the past year, they’ve emerged as a cornerstone of local online marketing via Search Engine Optimization (SEO), and even formed the basis of entire local and vertical sites, such as The Empire Page and yourhub.com.

“Press releases are for customers, not journalists,” said Anne Holland, the leader of Marketing Sherpa, whose eyebrow-raising new SEO study tracked the current role of press releases. In a conference call, Holland noted that local merchants have begun to fully leverage press releases, packing them upfront with SEO-triggering terms and links, and timing them for seasonal search interests.

National advertisers have been getting in the game too. A release touting a fare sale on Southwest Airlines led to the sale of $3 million of tickets, she says.

One upshot of the PR boom is newfound interest in PR distribution houses, such as PR Wire, and Business Wire. The latter has 25,000 customers in 150 countries, and was sold in 2005 to Warren Buffett. These services have become doubly important for indexing their releases for search engines, starting with Google and Yahoo.

Aggregating Press Releases

On the local front, Empire Information Services has been pushing harder and longer than most. Founded in Albany in 1985 by Political Science Professor Peter Pollak to disseminate New York State releases to local media outlets, it has grown to cover the Northeast and other selected regions of the U.S.

As the Internet began taking root in the mid-1990s, however, Pollak saw that press release distribution was bound to become a commodity. By the late 1990s, he began seriously thinking about how to build a new business, leveraging Empire’s customer base and contacts.

Pollak’s first scheme was to build storefronts and directories for local businesses, an idea that didn’t really leverage the existing press release business. But a second idea, The Empire Page, a premium service, has taken root.

Empire Page aggregates New York State news and press releases, and parses them out by constituency. In the process, it has become an important read for professionals doing business in New York, from corporate leaders to trade associations.

Now, The Empire Page concept is being branched out into a host of new, local-themed aggregations by Empire’s current leadership, in which Pollak has been joined by Colin Mathews, and Brendan Burns and Pat Burns (from PowerOne Media).

Press Releases as Consumer Media

A different kind of site being built from local press releases is The Denver Newspaper Agency’s Yourhub.com, which is now in California,Colorado, Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas. In Annenberg’s Online Journalism Review, author Tom Grubisch shows how yourhub’s backers are offering a quick-and-easy outlet for community journalism.

The concept is appealing. But Grubisch finds the inherent danger in relying on allowing commercial speech to mimic consumer media. “It’s true that most of the (press releases are) about worthy causes – fighting diseases, scholarships for deserving students and fund drives for struggling arts organizations,” he writes “But (in Denver, for example), can you cover 40—plus fast-growing communities in a large metro area by press release?”

Despite the dangers of press releases masquerading as news, in my estimation, most of the new trends involving press releases represent progress, and an attractive alternative to local online advertising.

Let’s not be innocents here. The news business today is increasingly fed by various forms of public relations, from presidential photo ops to department store press releases. It is important to separate commercial speech from non-commercial speech. But local media firms can’t afford to ignore the new trends in press releases. In fact, they will better serve their constituencies to channel them.

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