Are News Releases a Thing of the Past? (Part One)

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The University of Toronto doesn’t do the news release thing anymore. They now produce real stories and use RMA to prepare their spokespersons. How do you engage with media in a post-news release world?Typewriter with the words "Press Release" on the paper

Let’s say you have a great story to tell. It’s a story that is interesting, relevant and even exciting. As with all good stories, it reveals something about you as the author or the teller. You want a lot of people to hear it.

Way back in the 1900s it was a routine practice to put your story in a news release and pay a big company to send it out to all of the relevant news outlets.

These news releases followed a rigid format complete with a dry headline, an introductory sentence with the name and title of the newsmaker, a mix of text and pre-fab quotes (that were and are rarely used by reporters), and the arcane symbol “-30-“ at the end.

In other words, the news release may have distributed the information but the format often killed all the elements that made it a good story in the first place.

“We tell it in story format and we try to make it authentic and interesting, which many press releases are not.”

A couple of years ago, the University of Toronto media relations shop underwent a complete redesign. Gone were news releases and lengthy media line documents. In its place was a newsroom, filled with people researching, writing and producing the U of T’s stories. They respond to media requests and even controversies by drawing on their impressive community of faculty, staff and students. They also reach out to media outlets offering great stories and share their content through social media and other channels.

David Estok is the University’s Vice President of Communications. He came to the job with an impressive background in journalism, having been the Senior Editor of The Financial Post and Editor-in-Chief of the Hamilton Spectator. RMA’s John McKay had chance to talk with David last week about their approach. Here’s some of what he had to say:

“We wanted to create what we call the content hub, which is an integration of all the different aspects of authentic storytelling. It includes media relations, U of T News, all of our social channels, as well as some other publications and e-newsletters that we do.

“The idea is that we want to write stories as opposed to writing press releases.  Everything is a story. We tell it in story format and we try to make it authentic and interesting, which many press releases are not.”

"Communications House" at the University of Toronto (interior)
“Communications House” at the U of T

The traditional news release, often dressed up with some weblinks and multimedia content, is still a staple of our communications world. But why? The format was designed for the days of rotary telephones, typewriters and teletype machines. They were designed to communicate only with reporters. A member of the public would rarely, if ever, see an actual news release.

As crazy as it may seem, the best way to tell a story is to use a story format! Whether they are presented as news stories, as in the case of U of T News, or as one-pagers (a.k.a. “backgrounders”), a story captures people’s interest. It connects, informs and even inspires.

So, how did the U of T’s approach affect their relationship with reporters? How did it better reach their audiences and communities?

See part 2 of this article.

What do you think about the role of the news release in today’s communication context? Should it be adapted or replaced? What have you done to make it useful either as someone who issues news releases or receives them? Let us know in the comment section below.

2 Replies to “Are News Releases a Thing of the Past? (Part One)”

  1. The reality is stories are compelling ensuring you have effective story tellers is the other half of the equation. The role of the release , as far as I see it is to bridge the media to the storytellers. Each is still needed .

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