After reading his obituary in The New York Journal, Mark Twain famously wrote to the editor, "The report of my death was an exaggeration." The same can be said about the time-honored press release. The Public Relations Society of America, a trade group, recently published an article officially declaring the release dead. I'd say they're only half-right.

While 24/7 sources such as Twitter may have made the newsworthiness of the press release seem about as relevant as a horse and buggy, I'd argue entrepreneurs can still use releases in savvy ways to heighten awareness and drum up business. Below are five benefits press releases can deliver, along with tips for crafting them.

1. They give you legitimacy

Because it's written in a news style, a press release implies your company is a legitimate enterprise in a way a print advertisement simply cannot. If it follows the Associated Press Style Guide suggestions, your press release will contain the answers to the who, what, when, where, why, and how of your business story. Ideally, it will be a page to a page-and-a-half in length, written in terse, declarative sentences devoid of the hyperbole typically found in paid advertising or marketing materials.

And while a business editor at The Wall Street Journal may take no heed when he receives your press release, the missive may just prod coverage in industry trade journals or the regional business press. Since the latter are probably read more frequently by your target audience, that can be a very good thing indeed.

As noted earlier, your very first press release is the marketing equivalent of your corporate seal. It tells your small part of the world that you're open for business and ready to sign clients.

In drafting your press release, take the following approach:

  • Opt for a strong headline: (e.g. "Epstein Flashlights Launches with E-Z Find, World's First Flashlight Of, By, and For Park Rangers").
  • Address the market problem your new firm will help solve in the first paragraph: ("An Epstein survey of park rangers says most are frustrated with current flashlight models.")
  • Pinpoint exactly what's new, different, and better about your product or service ("The Epstein E-Z Find Flashlight solves multiple problems at once, including: portability, durability and long-lasting performance.")

2. They create a steady stream of news

A press release shouldn't be seen as a one-off. Instead, distribute subsequent press releases to announce new hires, technology advancements, and third-party endorsements. The press release also is a superb mechanism to announce pseudo-news such as:

  • Hiring the former assistant director of the Bureau of Land Management as your head of business development.
  • Achieving a milestone: ("Yosemite Park Rangers buy 1,000 Epstein Flashlights; firm has already surpassed first-year projections.")
  • Receiving an endorsement from a noted authority: ("Retired Yellowstone guide Arne Sacknussen says Epstein Flashlight is best he's ever used").

While none of these press releases may generate ink, they will keep prospective customers up to date on developments. (Note: this served my firm extremely well in our early days. One prospect actually invited us to pitch his business precisely because I had kept him updated on Peppercomm's successes.)

3. They break through the clutter

The press release is an ideal and unexpected way to reach target audiences. No matter who you're trying to sell, most decision-makers expect to be pitched face-to-face, over the phone, or by a slick, glossy brochure. A press release can be an effective direct mail piece precisely because it does look and read differently. Because of its no-nonsense, just-the-facts-ma'am nature, it can be your ticket to a smarter, softer sell that will break through the normal clutter clogging a prospect's virtual or physical inbox.

4. They are incredibly versatile

While press releases are intended for reporters, producers, and editors who cover the news, be sure also to send them to every local civic organization and any other business that might benefit from your product or service. So in the case of the Epstein E-Z Find Flashlight, you might forward the initial press release to everyone from local fire, police, and ambulance personnel to building security guards, as well as even the average consumer. There's no reason you can't leverage the press release to reach secondary and tertiary audiences in a new way.

Send every local charity a copy of your release as well. Follow up with those that are most closely aligned with your target audience (in Epstein's case, it may be the local Boy and Girl Scouts) and offer to provide them with free samples and demonstrations. If you're really smart, you might want to partner with a local veterans' organization and suggest an Epstein flashlight be included in the "Welcome Home" kit of every G.I. And that, my friend, could become a legitimate news story worthy of another press release.

5. They facilitate year-end summaries

Although you're probably not contemplating a public offering anytime soon, a press release is an effective and authoritative way of summing up each year of your newborn business's growth (e.g. "Epstein Flashlight Ends First Year by Signing Two Major Contracts; Galapagos Islands Rangers Express Interest in Demonstration").

Smart entrepreneurs have a knack for looking at old things in new ways. While the mainstream press and leading trade associations may have written off the press release as the carrier pigeon of media relations, you can resuscitate that old bird and use it to outflank your competitors.