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Why Content Marketing Is Replacing Traditional PR (Just Ask Katharine Zaleski)

By Kathryn Hawkins. PR
Image Credit: Depositphotos/BrianAJackson

Press releases and traditional media relations are losing their power. Here’s why content marketing is winning.

Public relations agencies used to have a pretty straightforward job. Send out press releases for their clients, help secure interviews, and keep track of the press clippings.

Back in the pre-Internet days, it wasn’t hard to get on the media’s radar if you knew the steps to take. But now, the game has changed, and traditional PR doesn’t work anymore. It hasn’t for a long time... But content marketing does.

Want proof?

I first saw the writing on the wall myself in 2008, when I was hired as a content marketing consultant for a crowdfunding startup. I helped them shape an editorial content strategy for their blog, develop and edit content in collaboration with a team of freelancers I managed, and promote the content both on their own site and distribute it to other partner platforms.

At the same time, the company had also hired a PR firm on retainer to help spread the word about the company to the traditional press. Each week, the PR firm checked in with a spreadsheet that showed which editors they emailed about the company, and how many times they’d followed up. Though this was a large and prestigious PR firm, their success rate was dismal—week after week, they came back with columns of “no reply; will follow up.” They sent out press releases each month, but not a single media inquiry came as a result.

Meanwhile, my team's content marketing efforts were knocking it out of the park. We drove tens of thousands of visits to the articles that we produced, and got the articles linked to and syndicated on huge sites including Huffington Post and Yahoo Shine. True, the articles weren’t direct pitches to use the company’s platform—but just the same, the content was helping the company raise its profile, build awareness and ultimately build trust in the brand. (While also providing great backlinks that helped its SEO.)

As you might guess, the PR company’s quarterly retainer wasn’t renewed, but they kept the content marketing engine running.

So why is content marketing succeeding where traditional PR is failing?

Journalists can’t hit “delete” fast enough on your press releases.

I wrote for many magazines and web publications prior to my career as a content marketer, and ended up on hundreds of PR mailing lists.

Want to know how many times I actually wrote an article based on a press release someone sent me?

Zero.

Many companies are still under the mistaken impression that by creating a release and blasting it out to as many syndication outlets as possible, they’ll draw attention to their brand.

Unfortunately, they’re wasting their time and their money—most good writers are seeking out their own networks for news tips, and want to do the work of developing their own story pitches rather than regurgitating a press release. Many editors recently shared their thoughts on press releases with Forbes, and nearly all agreed that they wanted no part of them.

Take TechCrunch editor John Biggs' responses as an example:

What annoys you about press releases?
They offer no context, no understanding of the receiver, and no story. They are literally the laziest thing a company can do.

What could PR people do to make them better?
Nothing.

Have you ever found a good story via a press release?
No.

Send a press release, and go directly to "junk mail"—do not pass Go, do not collect $200.

Publications crave valuable and useful content.

If you want to get mentioned in industry magazines and other publications, you need to give them something juicy.

Write a blog post about specific, tactical tips on how you raised $450,000 to fund your product development, as the makers of the Moment camera did? You’ll be building up tons of backlinks from sites sharing your story, and will likely get plenty of legitimate press attention from journalists curious to learn more. Alternatively, consider offering to share your experiences and lessons in a guest post on an established website, which will help you earn instant attention and credibility.

For a great success story on the power of honest storytelling, check out Groove CEO Alex Turnbull's "Journey to $100K" blog series, which shares in meticulous detail the mistakes and successes that have helped the SaaS company build traction. The blog has built a mailing list of more than 30,000 subscribers, and helped them meet their revenue goals for paying customers quickly—they've now upped their milestone to $500K in monthly revenues.

Meanwhile, imagine the attention they'd get if they'd simply issued a press release stating, "Groove meets $100,000 monthly revenue goals." Put it that way, and honestly, who gives a shit? It's the fact that they've invited us along on their journey that makes us care.

One caveat: PR can work—when it’s really news.

So should organizations abandon the press release and traditional media outreach altogether? Not quite.

If you do have legitimate, timely news that could be worth featuring—a crowdfunding campaign on the verge of raising $100,000, or a successful round of Series A funding—it’s well worth conducting a highly targeted media outreach campaign to journalists who cover your industry, and—what the hell?—a press release may not hurt.

Content marketing and traditional PR aren’t an either/or proposition. In cases where our clients have a time-sensitive and important announcement to present, we’ll help them develop press releases and share their messages with mass media. If it's truly news-worthy, it works: We helped a client score press mentions on Fast Company and dozens of other publications through media outreach because we targeted the right editors with the right story.

But we advise against spouting out releases for every little thing: Your company improved its maternity and paternity leave policies? That’s awesome, but rather than a formal release with canned quotes, a heartfelt and authentic article on your own site or a popular blog about why you changed your policies after the birth of your own child will go a lot further.

How PowerToFly mastered content marketing.

Just look at the viral response to PowerToFly founder Katharine Zaleski’s Fortune article on her own past gender discrimination transgressions, which illustrate the need for a company like her new startup, which helps women find flexible, family-friendly careers.

Would a press release announcing the launch of PowertoFly have gotten her the same attention from the press and millions of readers who read, shared, tweeted, and wrote about her personal story? Not a chance.

PowerToFly’s site crashed in the wake of that story, and my guess is they’ve brought on thousands of new potential employees and hiring companies since then. Zaleski’s story illustrates the power of content marketing—true, authentic storytelling that cuts through the noise and helps your brand prove what it’s all about.

For more insights on best practices in content marketing, sign up for our monthly newsletter, or get in touch for a consultation.

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Kathryn Hawkins

Kathryn Hawkins is principal and chief content strategist of Eucalypt Media. She has worked as a freelance journalist for media publications and managed inbound marketing and content strategy for corporate and nonprofit clients for more than a decade.

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