There’s been some debate in the office recently over whether press releases should include hyperlinks. Opinion seems to fall quite firmly into one of two camps: on the one hand there are those who believe that press releases should be link-free as ‘that’s how it’s always been done’, and those who think that links are essential in the modern connected world. I’ve outlined the main arguments of the two camps below:
The NO camp
- Press releases are the purest form of news; they exist in objective isolation, and it is up to the journalist to decide how to use them.
- The release should ‘sell itself’.
- We’ve never included links before, so why change now?
The YES camp
- Hyperlinks make a journalist’s job that little bit easier.
- Links can be used to add information or value to a release.
- We live in a digital world, and we should adapt our processes accordingly.
So which side is right? Is there a right or wrong answer? I would argue that there is a ‘right’ answer here, and that a balance can, and indeed should, be struck between the two camps. This all comes back to the question of ‘what is news?’, and the even more fundamental question of ‘what is a press release for?’ – why are we sending out a press release in the first place, and how is it consumed by the people who receive it?
What is news?
According to the Oxford dictionary, news can be defined as follows:
- Newly received or noteworthy information, especially about recent events.
- A broadcast of published report of news.
- Information not previously known to (someone).
- A person or thing considered interesting enough to be reported in the news.
The key definition here is point 1: newly received or noteworthy information. In the past ‘noteworthy information’ might have only been that information painstakingly collected and pored over by a small team of press officers over a period of several days. This information would then be packaged and distributed in a corporate comment-free document – the sort of release you might send to investors or the stock market.
This approach may have worked 20 or 30 years ago, but the world has changed dramatically since then. We live in a digitally connected world. We have 24/7 news channels, the internet and social media. As such the definition of ‘news’ is changing. News can now be turned around incredibly quickly, and it is essential that news from any organisation big or small is produced in an equally timely manner. It also needs to be produced in a form that works for new age media: both in the way it’s produced and the way it’s presented to journalists and consumers alike.
How are press releases distributed and consumed?
It is somewhat ironic that most link-free press releases today are distributed through the internet: whether they be sent out email, uploaded to a newswire, or published on a website. The problem is that while each of these forms of presentation has its own requirements, the blanket rule of sending out releases with no hyperlinks seems completely at odds with the way the material is received and then consumed. Let’s look at each channel in turn:
If a journalist receives a press release via email, then they are by definition, already connected to the web. If they decide the story warrants further investigation, a well-chosen hyperlink or two can make this process that little bit easier, and will save the journalist precious time when conducting research and writing up the piece. In a fast-moving, high-pressure world, this small detail may help the journalist decide between two stories of similar journalistic worth.
But the benefits don’t stop there. From the organisation’s perspective, hyperlinks can also prove invaluable. By selecting those links with the most value, a press office can control the information flow to the journalist, and can provide the most up-to-date information available. While a printed release is out of date before the ink has even had a chance to dry, a web page can be updated instantly. Thus, if an error should accidentally slip into a release you can ameliorate any damage by ensuring related web pages are updated accordingly.
There is an argument here that because newswires require objectivity, there is the implicit assumption that anything posted via a newswire should not contain any hyperlinks. However, hyperlinks in themselves do not impact objectivity: in fact, quite the reverse. When used correctly, hyperlinks can be used as a reference tool to support objectivity by evidencing claims, and providing further detail beyond the scope of a relatively short corporate newswire piece.
As soon as a press release is published on a web page, its nature changes in a fundamental way. It is no longer a ‘flat’ piece of content, the sort you might read in a book or on a leaflet. Rather, it becomes a part of the global hypertext – a network of dynamic pages connected together by links. A link-free press release posted on a website then completely defeats the whole object of its being, both as a web page, and as a piece of news.
If we can agree that the aim of any ‘news’ item is to benefit the organisation it came from in one way shape or form, then publishing that release on a website without links represents a complete and utter failure of marketing potential. Yes, people may read the story – they may even be moved by the story – but they will be no more than that; they will not read on, and they will not delve deeper into your content.
I hope by now you will get some idea of my own position on the links vs no links debate. My aim here is not so much to question the production of press releases per se, but rather to question the thought processes that prevent press releases working as effective marketing tools. The world has moved on a great deal in the last few decades, and news media has moved on as well. Whether or not we agree or disagree on the content of specific news items, the aim should always be to ensure that any news item that is sent out is done so with maximum effect.