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Are Press Release Distribution and News Wire Services worth their cost?

We embrace the opportunities that online and digital PR offers brands and communicators here at Smoking Gun towers. Online and digital is often held as one of the great mysteries of the art of PR and we’ve noticed over recent years increasing numbers of web based but non-traditional PR business such as SEO specialists, e-commerce experts, web build companies etc all listing online PR as part of their offer.
On further investigation all too often their PR service is simply offering to use news distribution services to issue news releases online. And what are the results? We have trialled and tested various news wires our selves over the years and can honestly say we’ve never had a decent show in any media worth note. Even with stories we’ve subsequently pitched to our own national media contacts and achieved coverage.
We were very interested then to spot a debate about the merits of news distribution services being led  by Graham Parker of Parker PR and were happy to open the doors to the guest blog section to him and below is what he had to say:
I’m neither a Luddite nor technophobe when it comes to media relations and have embraced technology where I think it appropriate and it adds value to my client services.
That said, I’m a firm believer in tried and tested techniques for gaining media coverage – why mend a wheel that does not need fixing? I’m fairly long in the tooth and happy to say a graduate of the old school of relationship building between journalists and PRs – I simply don’t think you can beat knowing the person at the other end of the phone line or email address.
However, I recently decided to try out a couple of press release distribution services when I felt a client’s story deserved wider coverage than my contacts book could provide. I shan’t name the two as it seems a tad unfair to do so but it’s fair to say that one of them has been around quite a time while the other is pretty much a new kid on the block.
I signed up to both on the basis that they promised access to hundreds if not thousands of journalists and news desks, many of whom had subscribed to their services. For the relatively modest outlay I felt both were worth the punt.went with the NKOB first and was pleasantly surprised at the content in the report I got back showing me where my press release had been featured.
The report contained 54 on-line links to coverage of the press release, which looked good until I opened them up. Most of them were websites hosting the uncut press-release (with which I had problem) as news feeds. Others were simply links to connected sites such as their Digit and Delicious pages.
54 different on-line presences may look good but when you put such coverage before a client, what exposure are they really getting and is it having any influence on their target audiences? I doubt it very much indeed!
I set up Google alerts for all of my clients as part of my monitoring of comment about them. In the four weeks since the first press release went live through the distributor not one of the above 54 presences were picked up by my Google alert for that client’s name.
The report I received from the more established distributor informed me that it was sent to an opt-in list of 2346 staff journalists, freelance journalists and news desks at broadcast, print and online media outlets. It resulted in 226 unique viewings by people on that list, a 9.6% reading rate. Since it went live Google has only picked up one reference to the press release and Twitter has reported three tweets about it, whereas the feature I generated in the Yorkshire Post was reported in my in-box within hours of it going live on the newspaper’s website.
I have often wondered about the value of such services blindly sending out thousands of releases a day to journalists who know that the agency has not taken the time to call them or build rapport. I cannot help but conclude that this is, to a large extent, a wasteful exercise, an opinion I’m not alone in sharing.
Helen Marriot of Kudo Communications in East Sussex also felt the persuasive power of the wire services and ended up feeling much the same way as I do.
“This (mine) is exactly my experience. I buckled recently when I ran out of time on an account where I needed to really try and secure some coverage fast. I paid for a service and immediately realised I would have been far better serviced by getting in a temp (even someone with no PR experience whatsoever) and continuing with the tried and tested sell in to a very targeted list of key journalists. One to chalk up to experience and not to be repeated!” says Helen.
Across in East Anglia John Haschak, Managing Director of Partnership Plus says his approach to successful media coverage generation is to focus on the client’s needs and the specific journalists that cover their business.
“Although pretty unfashionable these days we also try and talk to, and meet with journalists, to build relationships and make sure we provide the information in the most appropriate form for their needs. We believe this is the best way to achieve influential coverage for clients.
“We have trialled so called press release distribution services and while the numbers at first look impressive most ‘coverage’ tends to be self-posting websites or those linked in some way to the distribution service provider. There was zero coverage in print media. No point showing any of it to the client as they would see straight through it,” says a very forthright John.
And yet there does appear to be some value in these widespread postings. Anthony Hewson at AH Copy says that as a copywriter he doesn’t do a great deal of PR but has always seen the online distribution channels as being beneficial primarily for search engine optimisation.
Interestingly this thought is echoed by the Chairman of the more established wire service I used, who says that even if a wire does not deliver much in the way of original coverage, there is value in the sort of web presence and syndication provided by many wires as it can deliver valuable in-bound links, which can be good for a client’s search rankings. He also argues that because of this the service provided by the newer wire service I used “may have delivered value for money (for my client). This does however require a fairly well-informed client in order to understand the value of such activity.”
He may be quite right in that, but I doubt that many clients sign up for a media PR campaign in the hope of increasing their SEO, as opposed to reaching key audiences through specific and targeted media.
I am left wondering though, if Google is not picking up these on-line sites just how it is helping with SEO, but then that is not my specific field of expertise.
It is true that my experience of using wires would not stand up to scientific analysis, but seeing as others share my experience I cannot help but conclude that there are questions to be asked about the value of such services. Many of them clearly do work for PRs and their clients; otherwise they would not still be in business.
A PR freelancer from Dorking informs me that she’s always had great results from using a particular wire service but strongly recommends backing it up by contacting the Press Association early in the morning to gain their interest in running with your story.
She is not alone in advocating this strategy. One leading wire service provider I spoke with said that the PRs using his service get good coverage – not just online but in print and broadcast too “though we would always recommend distribution to a hand-picked press list in parallel with using any wire service.”
Sound advice indeed, but it still leaves me wondering just how many times you have to test the variables of story content, headline, timing and relevancy etc before you see real tangible results from a wire service. It may be that my two chosen experimental releases were below par; but both gained considerable coverage via my personal press contacts when I spoke to them. It may also be that the results from such services come with just a hint of opaque mystery, which is something the PR industry as a whole can do without full stop.
Will I use a wire service again? I’m not sure, my jury is out on this one at the moment, but one thing is certain I won’t ever advise a client or a fellow PR to rely on it alone.
You really can’t beat the good old fashioned way of building relationships to get your clients coverage and while a wire service may help, you really do need to make sure you pick the right one before putting all your PR eggs in one basket.
Read the original post and more from Graham Parker at his blog.

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