Do Online Press Releases Serve a Useful Purpose?

In his article Press releases: spin and propaganda, Gerry McGovern recently railed against the practice of posting press releases on web sites, asking the question:

…why do so many organizations still publish press releases prominently on their websites?

I agree in principle that putting press releases on a web site does not serve the purpose for which they were originally intended.

That is, providing information to journalists for them to write stories about you (although with the advent of the social media release this might be changing).

However, regardless of whether they are serving their original purpose, I wonder if the practice is now so ingrained that visitors expect to find an archive of press releases in the About or News section of an organization’s site, along with a list of the most recent ones on the home page.

I, for one, wouldn’t bat an eye if I came across this sort of setup on a web site, and quite often will scan over the most recent ones on the home page.

Under certain circumstances I actually find press releases to be very useful. If I am researching a potential vendor I’ll always read through their press releases to see what’s been happening with their product and what deals they have landed.

These days, company blogs serve a similar purpose, but there’s often too much noise. Press releases are useful because they contain only ‘official’ news about the organization.

When I’m researching a company as a job applicant I’ll always read through the more recent press releases as part of my interview preparation.

For example, when I was doing research for my current position, it was invaluable to be able to easily find NCsoft’s 2007 financials.

In his article, McGovern decries the spin that is put on press releases. Well, yes, but I think it’s generally accepted that an organization will try to present itself in the best light.

However, it’s not hard to go beyond that to get at the facts that are being reported — a deal was made, a product launched, an executive was hired, etc.

Also, the absence of recent press releases can be a telling sign of a company’s financial health. You certainly don’t want to become a customer or employee of a company that might not be in business in 12 months.

Of course, it is true that most press releases are poorly written from a web standpoint.

They are typically not formatted for reading online, use language that requires too high a reading level, and include information about the organization that is unnecessary when read on that organization’s own web site.

However, these are issues of implementation and can be said of many other forms of online content. Have you read any web site privacy policies lately?

Although McGovern correctly concludes by saying:

The Web is not where you announce; it’s where you do.

I think there’s a place for the press release in helping certain audiences easily find out what it is that you have done.