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#PRinHistory – The “OG” Press Release Was a Huge Train Wreck (Sorta)

Who Started All This? That Would Be PR Man, Ivy Lee

The press release has been in use for well over a century now. To this day, journalists still rely heavily on them to find the stories their readers, viewers, and listeners – and they’re showing no signs of waning in popularity.

As ubiquitous as they are today, few know they where they got their start.

And it all started with a literal train wreck.

In 1906, a West New Jersey and Seashore Railroad electric train car plunged off a drawbridge into a creek that separated Atlantic City from the New Jersey mainland, killing 53 of its 87 passengers.1

A horrible tragedy that was later discovered to be due to a mechanical problem with the bridge itself. However, no one knew at the time what the cause was, and up until that point, journalists were short on facts and had few sources other than eyewitnesses (and their less-than-perfect memories) to rely on for a complete picture of this tragic incident.

Now this was back in the day (1906) when the media just made shit up—literally. No joke. The more sensational the story, the better. It was quite the “creative writing” craft but made to “appear” real.

So, public relations man Ivy Lee was working for the railroad’s parent company, Pennsylvania Railroad. Rather than stand by and wait to see how the press would handle the tragic incident, Lee hit upon the idea to take a more proactive approach – he would craft a written statement that could handed out to journalists at the very scene of the accident.

BTW, this was unheard of before. The press never got a release or statement from a company before. The media went hog wild and the world’s first press release was born.

You can read the original release, “Statement from the Road” HERE.

One of the then (and still) largest newspapers procured a copy of that statement, and in an unprecedented move, printed the entire release word-for-word on October 30, 1906. In fact, many others followed suit and printed it word for word. Like I said folks, they had never been given a release from a company before… so this itself was novel in the industry.

This first press release took the viewpoint of the railroad company, thereby making theirs the dominant voice of the narrative.

And in the decades since that experiment in PR, they really haven’t changed all that much. Their structure and purpose are still a commonplace tactic that companies, governments, and public figures utilize to get in front of stories, in many cases before other sources get control of them, often to their detriment.

Really, any differences between the press releases of days gone and today come down to two things: distribution and multimedia.2

In Ivy Lee’s day, distribution was limited to ink on paper. It would be sometime later before wire services picked them up. Today, distribution comprises multiple channels – wire services, email, websites, and social media – all easily accessible to any journalist with a computer.

As far as multimedia is concerned, it wasn’t even a “thing” in 1906. A press release was limited to the story itself. With the advancement of multiple technologies, especially video and computer, allow more features (i.e. multimedia) to enhance and thereby attract more eyeballs – search engine optimization (SEO) keywords, embedded video, color photos, hyperlinks – they’re all now commonplace and in many cases totally necessary methods for standing out in the always extremely crowded, 24-hour news cycle we live in today.

Aside from these new tools, the core of the more-than-a-century old press release remains virtually unchanged.

That’s pretty remarkable when you think about how much the world has changed.

 

At JOTO PR Disruptors, we utilize this time-honored technique as part of your individually tailored Anti-PR plan to grab the media’s attention – and keep it. We take our cues from Ivy Lee and his original intent even further getting your news – your DISRUPTION – the massive exposure it deserves.

Let’s get you get started right here.

Still want to learn more? Then keep on reading to find out you can get answers to really big questions right now…

*Anti-PR definition: Anti-PR is really the difference between the existing apathy of the industry publicizing fluffy, no-result PR vs. our intolerance of mediocrity and our demand, skill and mastery in obtaining results. JoTo PR breaks the entire mold: We use the science of Crisis Management to manage our client’s messaging in order to disrupt. It’s like strapping turbojets onto “everyday PR” yielding unprecedented results.

 

Sources:

  1. “1906 Atlantic City train wreck”, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1906_Atlantic_City_train_wreck, last edited February 07, 2020
  2. “Press Release Anatomy and History | Not Much Has Changed”, Meltwater, meltwater.com/en/blog/press-release-anatomy-and-history–not-much-has-changed, March 23, 2020

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