Photo by Susanne Nilsson. Some rights reserved.

Photo by Susanne Nilsson, some rights reserved.

Yesterday, a participant in my free PR for Technologists teleconference asked me whether the press release is dead.

“When I send one out via wire services, it seems to have about as much impact as stuffing it into a bottle and tossing it in the ocean,” he said.

Do reporters even respond to press releases any more?

What’s the best format to use for them?

What’s the best way to distribute them so that they’re actually read?

To answer, yes, press releases still have a role to play in getting publicity for new ventures, products, and technologies. They do get read, when presented the right way.

As for formatting, check out Debbie Leven’s excellent “complete guide to writing an effective press release” over at the Marketing Donut.

But going back to presentation, that’s everything, and it trumps the format and even the actual content of a press release every time. And it goes hand-in-hand with how you distribute a release.

In fact, the best way to get your ideas and news items across to the people who could publish them for you is not to distribute them in the conventional sense at all. Distribution implies mass marketing. That’s the job of the people you’re reaching out to. Instead, think of hand delivering individual copies of your release to individual writers, editors, and producers.

Heather Anne Ritchie-Carson, Co-Founder of Onboardly puts this concept very well in her Beginner’s Guide To Public Relations For Tech Startups on the Kissmetrics blog:

Time is precious and no one understands this better than a startup founder. Instead of focusing all your efforts on cold pitching to as many writers as you can, why not concentrate on pitching to fewer in a more strategic, relationship-focused way?… Consider the value of one friend in the media compared to the value of a dozen contacts in the media. Your friend will notice your emails, associate your name with quality pitches and get back to you with feedback right away.

Note the word “pitch” rather than press release. Sure, a press release can be part of an effective pitch, and often is, but it’s the pitch that gets the attention, that is much more likely to be read, that can go a lot farther in getting you the publicity you’re after.

That’s because pitches, in contrast to naked press releases, are personal. Pitches are what I use to sell my stories to the many editors I write for. A pitch says, “hey, I know who you are and what you’re interested in, and that’s why I’m sending you this info.”

A press release, no matter how well written, just presents the info. A pitch puts it in a nice wrapper with a personal note tied up with a bow just for the recipient. It’s a lot more likely to get opened. Yes, it can take a more time to prepare one of those packages than simply hitting Send on a mass distribution list, but since it’s a lot more effective, it’s time well spent.

So what, exactly, is a pitch, and how do you write it?

Simple. After you’ve identified the key media contacts you’d like to establish a relationship with, you send him or her a personal note, just as you would any other potential colleague or friend. You say “hi,” or whatever your preferred email greeting is, and you introduce your topic in a conversational way, as briefly as possible. Then you can paste the content of your press release below that. What you’ve just done is the digital equivalent of hand delivering your message rather than tossing it out in a bottle.