On October 28, 1906, not far from Atlantic City in the USA, an accident occurred that still has serious consequences for press work today. Around half past three in the afternoon the train with the number 1065 of the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR), the largest railway company of the USA at that time, jumps on a bridge, due to a technical inadequacy of its signal system, from the tracks and falls over five meters into the river "The Thoroughfare", ten meters deep there. Of the total of 87 inmates, 53 die.
Even before the accident, the Pennsylvania Railroad was repeatedly criticized by the public. The railway company was widely accused of price hikes and at the same time of a lack of investment in passenger safety.
In the year of the accident Ivy Ledbetter Lee began to work for the PRR. The then 29-year-old had graduated from Princeton and had been a newspaper reporter on Wall Street since 1899. Due to the low earning potential and challenging working conditions in journalism, Lee had already begun in 1903 to focus more on the newly emerging discipline of public relations.
In response to the train crash, Ivy Ledbetter Lee wrote the first press release in newspaper history as the company's statement. Until then, it was not customary for companies to take the initiative in this form. Press work was more reactive than responding to interviews or journalistic coverage. Grade crises were literally hushed up. The task of the PR officer was rather to withhold information in a targeted manner and to prevent critical reporting by all means.
Due to his unusual approach, Lee is not only widely regarded as the inventor of the press release, but also as the founder of crisis management in PR.
Old brooms sweep well
Lee was very successful with his work. His press release on the train accident was published a few days later by the New York Times, among others.
Contrary to what one might expect, the practice of providing the media with targeted information from the company in order to influence public opinion has been able to assert itself to this day. The reason for this and thus also the still valid self-image of press work in the vast majority of all companies lies in the fundamental change in communication policy already mentioned: PR and press work should no longer conceal and cover up, they want to provide targeted information. Of course, a press release wants to put a company in a positive light if possible, but transparency and honesty are more important than self-congratulation. In addition the realization prevailed that openly admitted and extensively thematized mistakes cause less damage to a company's image in the long run than rather speculative reporting in a vacuum of missing first-hand information. Only those who communicate themselves can steer communication.
These findings are not new either, but can already be found in Ivy Lee's work when he states:
"Tell the truth, because sooner or later the public will find out anyway. And if the public doesn't like what you are doing, change your policies and bring them into line with what people want."
(Tell the truth, because sooner or later the public will find out anyway. And if the public doesn't like what you are doing, change your policies and bring them into line with people's wishes.)
The press release has hardly changed since its inception. Of course, purely formal criteria have been developed with which those responsible for communication in companies primarily take into account the working habits of editorial offices. The aim here is quite clearly to give the editor the opportunity to take over a press release without additional effort, if possible one-to-one. Written in the style and according to formal criteria of journalistic reporting, the press release is still today a popular work facilitation and creates a win-win situation between company and medium.
The press release in the digital age - and instead or
As the preferred tool in dealing with print journalism, the classic press release has experienced the difficult times in recent years, which also have a decisive influence on everyday life in the newspaper industry.
Media consumption patterns and ways of forming opinions, especially among the younger generation, have changed significantly with the growing importance of the Internet in everyday life. In addition to online formats of classical media, it is above all pure online media and, to an ever increasing extent, social media that companies have to reach in order to reach their target group via them.
Even if press work for different formats places different demands on their design, the supposed additional effort should not tempt one to lose sight of the classic press release completely. Even if the loss of importance of print media, measured by circulation figures and the number of formats that have been able to assert themselves on the market since the beginning of the crisis, cannot be dismissed, classic newspapers are by far not as dead as had been predicted two decades ago. On the contrary, print journalism has been experiencing a renaissance in recent years in its importance for the formation of opinion. When it comes to the question of the credibility of information, newspaper formats are usually far superior to pure online formats in surveys.
Classic press work, in the form of creating and maintaining a press distribution list, writing and sending press releases and maintaining general contacts with media representatives, should be and remain an integral part of an entrepreneurial communication strategy. Of course, it is important to make use of the possibilities offered by technology and to take account of the changing requirements of the media. It goes without saying that press releases are now sent out by e-mail, photographic material is made available digitally and changes and modernisations are also made in terms of language and form where the media in question, in reaction to changed habits of the readership, exemplify and thus presuppose it.
A modern content strategy makes it possible to use content for different channels with little effort and thus effectively increase reach.
It took only about half a century of industrialization until the first companies, at least in the USA, recognized the importance of public opinion and had to painfully realize that it can be a criminal mistake to leave their influence through newspaper coverage to journalism alone.
As a widely recognized inventor of the press release and general crisis PR, Ivy Lee was one of the first to recognize this and to try to influence print media.
The basic principles and methods he used for this have now lasted for more than a century. However, the importance of print journalism has changed in recent decades, to write it off completely and neglect it in corporate communications is a serious mistake. With little effort, with the help of modern technology and modern services, it is possible to carry out classical press work sensibly alongside the tools of a modern, digital communication strategy.