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The 100th Birthday of the Press Release

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The press release turned 100-years-old over the weekend. As search marketers debate over the future of the online press release, we can learn some important lessons from the early history of public relations.

On October 28, 1906, at least 50 people lost their lives when a three-car train of the Pennsylvania Railroad's newly equipped electric service jumped a trestle at Atlantic City, NJ, and plunged into the Thoroughfare creek.

That afternoon, Ivy Lee, who some consider to be the father of modern PR, created the first press release. The Pennsylvania Railroad was one of his clients. Following the accident, Lee not only convinced the railroad to distribute a public statement, he also convinced them to provide a special train to get reporters to the scene of the accident.

The New York Times was so impressed with this innovative approach to corporate communications that it printed the first press release—verbatim—on Oct. 30, 1906 as a "Statement from the Road." In the weeks that followed, both newspapers and public officials effusively praised Pennsylvania Railroad for its openness and honesty.

The following spring, some anthracite coal operators hired Lee to represent them during a strike. When he mailed out the second press release, journalists started expressing hostility, calling it an ad disguised as a story sent to manipulate news coverage.

In response, Lee issued a "Declaration of Principles" that stated, "This is not a secret press bureau. All our work is done in the open. We aim to supply news. If you think any of our matter ought properly to go to your business office, do not use it."

His Declaration of Principles added, "Our matter is accurate. Further details on any subject treated will be supplied promptly, and any editor will be assisted most cheerfully in verifying directly any statement of fact. In brief, our plan is, frankly and openly, on behalf of business concerns and public institutions, to supply to the press and public of the United States prompt and accurate information concerning subjects which it is of value and interest to the public to know about."

A hundred years later, some things are significantly different, but others are remarkably unchanged.

When the press and public use Google News, Yahoo! News, or AOL News, they often find recent and relevant press releases along with news stories in the results. This has prompted a new generation of pioneers to re-invent the press release for news search engines.

Tad Clarke, the Editorial Director of MarketingSherpa, refers to their innovation as "the tactic known as SEO PR." Others call it "search engine promotion," "press release SEO," "press release optimization," and "news search SEO."

But, whatever this innovation is called, it faces some of the same mixed reactions that Ivy Lee encountered 100 years ago. Brian Easter, the CEO of NeboWeb, captured this ambivalence in a recent article for Promotion World entitled, "SEO PR: Buzzworthy or Just Hype?"

Meanwhile, another group of inventors are urging public relations agencies to post their news releases to social media websites. They're also lobbying press release distribution services to add del.icio.us bookmarks, Technorati tags, and Digg buttons to every news release.

They call their innovation "PR 2.0," "PR Squared," and "the social media press release."

Reactions to this tactic have also been mixed. The skepticism is captured in a post entitled, "A Press Release for Social Media? I Think Not," by Teresa Valdez Klein on the Blog Business Summit site.

So, which of these innovations is more likely to get adopted—the optimized press release or the socialized news release? Or, will these ideas be combined into "SEO PR 2.0"?

The answers to these questions will be decided by two important groups who have different—and potentially conflicting—goals.

The first group is the Chief Marketing Officers who hire public relations agencies and search engine optimization firms. So, the advocates of "SEO PR" and "PR 2.0" both need to focus on the success metrics which CMOs are focused on.

And, while some Chief Marketing Officers want to know how much media coverage or "buzz" an online press release generates, most need to know how many website visitors and sales leads it generates. In other words, an online press release needs to meet the goals of CMOs, who are more interested in "outcomes" than "outputs."

The second group is the press and public. If reporters, bloggers, consumers or volume buyers find an online press release in Google News, Yahoo! News, AOL News, del.iciou.us, Technorati, or Digg, they will express hostility if it looks like an ad disguised as a story sent to manipulate news coverage.

So, the advocates of "SEO PR" and "PR 2.0" both need to supply news of value and interest, accurate information, as well as further details promptly and directly. In other words, an online press release needs to meet the goals of the press and public, who are more interested in "pull" than "push."

So, the both pioneers of SEO PR and the inventors of PR 2.0 can learn some important lessons from Ivy Lee's Declaration of Principles. While they are almost 100 years old, they could have been written this past weekend.

Greg Jarboe is President of SEO-PR and will conduct the "Press Release SEO Workshop" at SES Chicago '06.

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