Carpentry tools on wooden bench

“Can we issue a press release?” This phrase strikes dread in me. Yes, I work in public relations. But here’s the thing: probably 90% of the time, there’s a better way to get your message across.

Those of us who remember life before the Internet are more likely to ask this question, because press releases used to be a good way to reach reporters. Just about every organization posts its “news” releases online now, which has led to way too many releases. And too many PR people spam reporters with unwanted releases. (Yes, unless they asked for it, it’s spam. And it’s illegal if you don’t allow them to opt out.) Press releases have become noise. You don’t want to create more noise.

Next time someone asks you “can we issue a press release?”, don’t just do it. (If it hasn’t happened yet, it will.) Think about why they want a press release. They might ask for a press release, because that’s the only way they know to reach the press or public. Remember, in an organization where you are a one-person communications shop: no one else knows how to do your job.

A big part of your job is helping your boss or board reach their communication goals. The first step–and one that likely isn’t in your job description–might be educating them why a press release isn’t the best tool. If you’re talking to your operations guy, pretend you’re at Home Depot, and he wants to buy a screwdriver for a job that clearly requires a power drill. Using a press release to announce that your (not famous) vice president, Mr. X, is speaking at a conference is like trying to build a fence with a saw: counterproductive. All this type of press release does is make reporters ignore your real news.

What is news? Bad news. My news writing professors were fond of the saying “If it bleeds, it leads.” You don’t want to be in that story. Ever. (In business terms, think layoffs, scandals, stock plummets.)

What else is really news? Think about what people who read your hometown newspaper view as news. New business*, which brings dollars and jobs to the local economy, is a great positive news story. New venture funding, especially in this economy (this is one case where you should issue the release when the board asks for it). New products. Not an addition to your line of car wash options–important new products that impact the way we live, work, eat, play. Think smart phones, malaria vaccines, prosthetic limb technologies. You’re not likely to have this kind of ground-breaking, real news every month. Don’t force a schedule of regular press releases–you’ll end up issuing non-news. (But do figure out what real news you’ve got coming, so you can write the releases in advance, and get the necessary approvals.)

Your company is proud of every accomplishment or charity fundraiser. I get that. And if it’s really news, go ahead and write that press release. If you’re scared to push back, try some alternatives before you do the release, and let your boss (or the asker) know the results. For example, announce whatever it is on your company blog, and post links to it from your Twitter or Facebook account. Make a short video about it and post it on YouTube. Create a Tumblr blog to showcase your company culture (props to @jesshibb for that idea). Count the views, likes, comments; maybe that’s the goal your asker really had in mind. If you’re not really trying to reach reporters, try some different tools first.

And remember, you can always post press releases on your website and not send them to reporters, if you are forced to issue that non-news release after all.

*Note: Public companies are required by the SEC to announce certain things. If your company is listed on the NYSE it’s highly unlikely you’re a one-person shop (thanks for reading anyway!), but just in case, wanted you to be aware.