Tuesday, October 03, 2006
BusinessWire's 100th anniversary of the news release
In fact, the news release is not 100 years old; but it as I pointed out in my presentation, 1906 is a year worth celebrating.
Here's what I said (warning, long):
- George Washington never actually chopped down a cherry tree, nor told his father, "I cannot tell a lie"
- Abraham Lincoln didn’t really draft the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope
- Feminists did NOT burn their bras at the Miss America pageant in the 1960s
And, the news release isn’t really 100 years old. Like so many aspects of history, the story surrounding the birth of the news release is murky. We know that the Bryan and McKinley campaigns issued something akin to press releases in 1896, and that public officials, insurance, railway and telegraph companies, resorts, entertainers, hotels, and retailers were all employing press agents before 1900. Editors had begun complaining about "space stealing" and free publicity as early as the 1880s. What it boils down to is that we really don’t know when to celebrate the birth of the news release.
But if we want to celebrate it, 1906 is as good a year as any. That year Cedartown, Georgia’s own Ivy Ledbetter Lee issued a "Declaration of Principles," which to my mind represents a watershed moment in the history of public relations. Like many press agents, Lee had been a reporter, for the New York Times no less, but unlike the others he used his understanding of the press not to make a quick buck but to establish a new way of thinking about press relations.
The Declaration is worth quoting, as Sherman Morse did in a 1906 magazine article about the new class of press agents epitomized by Lee. Many of you read it in your Intro to PR textbooks, but we won't speculate about how long ago that might've been. Here's what Lee wrote:
"This is not a secret press bureau. All our work is done in the open. We aim to supply news. This is not an advertising agency; if you think any of our matter ought properly to go to your business office, do not use it. Our matter is accurate. Further details on any subject treated will be supplied promptly, and any editor will be assisted most cheerfully in verifying directly any statement of fact."
The Declaration separates Lee from other press agents because he insisted that he was providing information, not advertising, and that editors were free to use it—or not.
Lee’s words should still resonate for us today, grounded though they are in century-old language (I mean, who’s cheerful in this day and age?). The writing textbook that I use in my PR Communication class advises students that it’s okay to risk loss of control over content. It talks about news values, and it emphasizes the importance of accuracy and timeliness.
It also, of course, teaches students the proper format for writing a news release. Which brings us back to 1906. That year is also significant for us today because that’s when Lee started using what he called a “handout” in a large-scale, systematic way.
Working on behalf of the anthracite coal operators, Lee issued frequent handouts that updated reporters on discussions between the operators and the miners at a time when another huge coal strike was pending. One reporter stated that it had been almost impossible, during the 1902 strike, for a reporter to get any reliable information from the owners. In 1906, though, because of Ivy Lee "news of importance and interest was easily obtainable from operators as well as from miners."
Despite this change, Sherman Morse was, in 1906, still skeptical. "The new plan has not been in effect long enough to enable one to foresee its real meaning,” he wrote. “Much depends upon whether it results in disclosing all the facts in which the public has a right to be concerned, or whether it results merely in obtaining for the corporations greater publicity for such facts as are directly favorable to them."
It is worth noting that, under Lee’s new system, the coal miners went back to work under their old agreement, gaining nothing but a three-year peace.
It’s also worth considering that Lee failed to live up to the standards he set in the Declaration during his work for the Rockefeller family during the Colorado Fuel and Iron strike, less than a decade later. Sherman Morse would not have been surprised. But, having debunked one myth already, I will save that story for another day.