WASHINGTON With access to blogs, message boards and other media tools, consumers have ushered in the age of citizen journalism. They can report, critique and disseminate news and information, becoming an important part of the conversation.
That's the premise behind the social media press release, which includes rich media along with text that targets consumers as well as journalists.
With the goal of making press releases more Web friendly, SHIFT Communications , a Boston-based PR firm, has designed a template that reduces the traditional text of a press release to bullet points while adding videos and links.
Journalists are no longer considered the only audience for a company's news because in the blogosphere "everyone can be their own journalist," says Todd Defren, a SHIFT principal. "And a lot more companies are looking to consumer-generated content to add to the conversation. The most important aspect is enabling people to have and share conversations about the news."
Defren describes the social media press release as "the democratization of access to content" where participation in the conversation becomes a form of marketing. "Every press release becomes like a blog post so people can track it and come back to it," he says.
So far, PR companies like Edelman and marketers like Coca-Cola have used some form of a social media press release. Edelman uses the SHIFT template. And during Coke's "Virtual Thirst" competition to design a vending machine for the virtual world Second Life, the company used a release format that combined text and multimedia. It supported the image downloads, links to "Virtual Thirst" videos on YouTube and MP3 interviews.
Not everyone is satisfied with the SHIFT method. The Adfero Group, a Washington, D.C.-based public affairs shop, is working on its own template that it argues will combine the best of the old press release, the story narrative, with the new-media bells and whistles. One objection is the bullet-point format of the SHIFT template. "The general public wants to read a story," says Jeff Mascott, a managing director at Adfero.
But many of Adfero's arguments for why companies should adopt such a release are similar to SHIFT's. "We are making the case that if Fortune 500 companies are going to stay relevant, they have to adopt some of these same tactics to make sure they are a part of the conversation," Mascott says. "They have to push out the news and get feedback and encourage feedback because consumers and voters now expect to be a part of the process of creating products and services."
Others wonder if companies really need such releases. Take Apple's publicity run-up to the launch of the iPhone, says Gene Lewis, a partner and director of Web site development at the interactive shop Digital Pulp. From the initial keynote speech by Steve Jobs to the online video information about the product, Apple garnered about $400 million in free media within a two-month period, according to David Yoffie, a Harvard Business School professor. And Apple did all that without a social media press release, says Lewis.
"When any new paradigm comes out, people can show the old versus the new," Lewis says. "Anytime someone seizes that difference it is considered a step forward. My cynical self would say that that would only be true if the difference was beneficial."
So is the social media press release worthwhile? Tom Foremski, a former Financial Times reporter thinks so. It was his initial blog item on the matter that prompted SHIFT to design its template.
"Press releases are nearly useless," Foremski writes. "They typically start with a tremendous amount of top-spin, they contain pat-on-the-back phrases and meaningless quotes. Often they will contain quotes from C-level executives praising their customer focus. They often contain praise from analysts, (who are almost always paid or have a customer relationship.) And so on..."
If you like the idea of a social media press release, you can help out by joining the conversation. Adfero's Mascott is looking for a good one-word name since "social media press release" is too long-winded. If "blog" is a combination of the words "Web" and "log", what would your name for it be? Mascott can be reached at http://www.adferogroup.com.