Something unexpected happened when I finally mustered the courage to start calling myself a “writer.” No one asked me what type of writing I enjoyed to write or who my influences are, no, everyone I told had the same question, “have you been published?” I don’t play golf but I suspect that golfers have the same experience. The first response after being told that someone golfs is almost always, “what is your handicap?” We seem to need to measure someone’s skill level before we allow them to occupy a category in our brain.
The thing was, the answer to this question was actually not very straightforward. I had set up a “publication” on the popular blogging site Medium and had been “publishing” my articles through it. Obviously, this is not what people meant when they asked that question. They wanted to know if someone had selected and fact checked my essays, publishing them and ergo giving me their stamp of approval. But from the outside looking in, the effect was the same. So, in order to save face and to avoid having to get into the details of my situation, I would just say, “yes.”
This sentiment opened my eyes to incongruence between our notions of publication and what technology was doing to the publishing landscape. Historically, it has always taken a lot of time, effort and resources to publish the writer’s word. When scribes had to painstakingly write every book by hand publication was reserved for the most important (usually religious) texts. Even after Gutenberg’s breakthrough with the printing press allowed one person to publish as many papers as an army of scribes, it still required the materials to be purchased, the press to be rented, and the distribution to be arranged. Then the internet happened and all of the physical baggage that came with printing and distributing went away. But in its place was an intuitive, clunky new language that needed to be learned, which kept the barrier to publishing intact.
While the internet was like the invention of cars in its ability to change people’s lives, it wasn’t until the last decade or so that it had its Model T moment, spreading the full power of the technology to the masses and not just the few who could afford it. Websites like Facebook, Reddit and Medium gave people a platform to publish on that only took a few short keystrokes to set up and content management software like WordPress and SquareSpace made creating an online publication not much harder.
The result was a population that carried too much reverence for the importance of a publication. We were biased to the idea that publication must mean truth, not realizing that one simple software bot could publish the same fake stories thousands of times a day. We had outsourced our research to these establishments thinking that they were at least trying to be truthful. Now we have to come to terms with the fact that all publications are biased (most unconsciously rather than maliciously) and that we would have to fact check the news we read about the history of our politicians, vaccinations’ link to autism, or even that the earth has never been proven to be round ourselves.
But this is changing. People are getting wise to the sites that have clearly one sided messages. Most misinformation is now being spread by those 65 and older, precisely the segment of the population that hasn’t caught on to the internet’s ability to turn anyone (or anyone’s bot) into a publisher. The skepticism about online publications that has become a new part of our cultural firmware has had a few effects. One is the degradation of the belief in unbiased journalism. It seems that almost any article posted online gets discredited in its comments. Only publications with the strongest reputation (amongst their followers) have been able to survive. The other effect, the one that carries over into the business world, is a hypersensitivity to self promotion.
It used to be that companies would reach out to news agencies via intermediaries that had access to their news rooms. These companies, most notably PR Newswire and Businesswire grew into publishing channels where companies would pay to push their copy out into cyberspace. The publication bias allowed them to morph from communication to give information to the press, who would then repackage it for their readers, to “news” distributors themselves. For a small fee, companies can send them their “press releases” and have them be distributed under the guise of a third party publication. The difference is that these “newswires” don’t have editors. They will take whatever script is given to them and yell it at the top of their lungs to whoever cares to listen.
More and more, people are not caring to listen. Consumers have developed a bloodhound’s sense of bullshit and press releases all have at least a whiff of it on them. What used to be the main way to push business communication to the outside world has become more of a formality than a useful tool. Let me be the first to tell you that, unless you are a company big enough to generate clicks with your name alone, the “press” is not reading these releases. Ninety nine percent of all press releases have little to no reason to exist rather than for a PR agency to show a concrete example of why they should get paid.
Real estate companies love press releases. I have been hired by a few property firms to write their copy. More than a few said things to me like, “we want to push out a press release every month.”
“What if there is nothing to talk about?” I always ask.
“Just find something,” they would invariably say.
The consumer is trained to look for authenticity. They want to trust that a company is who they say they are. Trust comes from respect and there is no better way to disrespect a reader than to take up their time making them read four paragraphs about nothing more than your company’s accomplishments. Property companies need to find ways to show their expertise than just brag about themselves in a press release. There are many ways to do this. An informative blog post, a research report or a byline in a reputable publication such as this (we are always accepting as long as they conform to our writer’s guidelines).
But the bottom line is that business as usual, posting a puff piece on a pay-to-pay website, is not going to land on the new generation of readers, whose incredulity has been finely sharpened by a non-stop onslaught of digital lies. Bragging about yourself in a press release might end up having the opposite effect as intended. A press release about how a company is “best-in-class” and “cutting edge” bears little weight with someone that knows that the company itself was the one that wrote it.