The debate rages–is the press release really dead?

Reminds me of the old Simon and Garfunkel song, the one that goes its all happening at the zoo. There they ask “is the theatre really dead?” capturing the psuedo-intellectual chatter of the moment. Here the chatter is about the press release and its future.

It’s an old topic but one that continually gets revived. This answer, provided by a PR distribution service, clearly defends the relevance and importance of the press release. The whole argument here is contrasting the press release to advertising. Hmm, why do I feel like I am witnessing a discussion about why buggy whip brand is better?

I’ve written here a long while ago why I believe the press release is dead. But admittedly, I come primarily from the side of PR that is reactive rather than proactive–crisis communication and issue management rather than promotional. And I would say that there are probably limited circumstances where the traditional style press release may still be appropriate, I just have a harder and harder time thinking of those circumstances.

I will go so far as to say that the gut-level reaction of PR professionals to run out and produce a press release for either promotional or response purposes is potentially damaging. Why? It stops them from thinking through what their real job is, and prevents them from taking advantage of the huge benefits that internet-based communication now offers. Their real job is to inform, educate or influence people. It is not to keep a reporter occupied. The press release has worked in the past because the way you inform, educate and influence people, particularly larger groups of them, has been through the media–particularly the mass media.

Doesn’t that still hold true today? To some degree, but it is limited. If you focus first of all on the people who really matter, what I have called strategic relationships, you quickly find that in most cases informing masses of people is not really important or valued. In fact, perhaps the best way to inform the masses is by informing a smaller and more significant group who will do much of the informing of the rest for you.

You certainly see this in crisis communication. There are people whose opinion of you and/or your organization matter a great deal for your future. They may be your most important customers, key investors, analysts, members of Congress who sit on the allocation committee. Those people matter. In fact, the whole world may think one way about you, but if those people know the truth and think differently, you are going to be OK. Doesn’t it make sense to focus on them? And do they want a press release from you?

I think the same thing is true in promotional PR. Even if you are a massive consumer products company, a car manufacturer or a soda brand, there are some people more important to brand reputation, brand value and brand awareness than others. Can you identify them? Can you reach out and touch them? Do they want a press release from you?

OK, I’m sure those reading this will be able to come up with examples where press releases are the best thing in the situation. I can think of some of those as well, so I’m not going off the deep end here. But my point is that as long as the press release is the fall back position, the knee-jerk strategy, the only thing we know how to do it will be counter-productive to good PR.

If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Not every PR opportunity or requirement is a nail. Unfortunately, there are a lot of perfectly good PR people thinking the only thing they have is a hammer.

Former BP crisis comms leader, Neil Chapman, provides some of best crisis prep advice

I’m very pleased to share Crisisblogger with my good friend and associate Neil Chapman, with Alpha Voice Communications. Neil recently left BP where he served in a number of communication leadership positions, including leadership roles in the Texas City, Alaska corrosion and Deepwater Horizon events. Few people on earth have been on the frontlines of communication during so many major events or crises, which have also included natural disasters such as Katrina. But it is also true that few have the ability to turn those gut-wrenching experiences into practical lessons learned that can help others prepare and respond. As they used to say about a major investment firm, when Neil Chapman speaks, crisis communicators listen.

Goodbye 2010.  Last year saw different crises –the horrific Haiti earthquake, the ash cloud air chaos and snow muddle, both in the UK and US. Along with scores of communications professionals, I was caught up in the BP oil spill for too much of 2010,

Both a human and environmental disaster, the event was complex and extremely expensive in its emotional and economic toll. Any organisation facing an emergency or crisis would be wise to learn lessons from the incident, without the costs that befell BP.

Reports and inquiry testimony are readily available to study. BP has produced its own investigation report and a technical lessons learned document with accompanying DVD –

Many pundits have shared opinions about where BP went wrong and what it should have done. Here are some observations, that can point to where organisations might start to look for lessons relevant to them:

Readiness – an every day investment

In a crisis, time is precious, priorities key. Whatever the world thinks, BP was readier than many organisations. Meetings need a purpose, priorities established, decisions taken efficiently, communications clear and concise. All good skills and habits worth cultivating for every day business. But it takes training and practice.

Know the system

If outside agencies, especially emergency services, respond to a corporation’s incident, it will likely be managed using an established response system with tried and tested procedures and protocols. Corporate responders – including senior management – need to be familiar with the system.

It’s an on-line world

On-line is where most of the conversations and coverage about a crisis now occur. Corporate communicators who believe they should focus solely on traditional, mainstream media during a crisis – however demanding they are – will miss most of what is being said about them by default.

Social media smart

A crisis is not the time to learn the challenges and opportunities of social media such as You Tube, Twitter, Facebook etc. These channels can hurt and help at the same time. Corporate communicators need to be social media savvy, knowing when and how they can use these channels in a crisis. And tomorrow there will be a new one to learn about …

A mobile world

As well as being on-line, the world carries the internet on its hip or in a purse. To reach key audiences on the go, corporate communicators cannot be hidebound by the technology they are permitted or know how to use.

Information discipline

To provide timely, accurate on-message information to the outside world as soon as possible across an organisation requires discipline to ensure it is shared effectively inside too. Information discipline gets harder over time, as people shift in and out or they are spread over geography and time zones. Has your organisation got a system other than email?

Plan for help

Chances are a corporate communications department will need extra people to cope with the tremendous information demand during a crisis. To bring them on-board takes time and effort, just when you need both for other priorities.  Learn how to integrate extra resources quickly as well as how to coordinate with other agencies.

Communications processes

A corporate communications manual provides clear ‘how to’ instructions that save time and help integrate the ‘new hands’ an organisation needs. Have you got one?

Leaders – be hard, be soft

A crisis tests any leader’s people skills. Responders need honest feedback, positive and negative. If something or someone isn’t working, the problem has to be fixed quickly to keep the response on track. But at the same time, people need to be ‘nurtured’ when the going gets tough for them.

Beware of the toll

Crises wear people down. The strain can show up at work or at home. Relationships may break. Any corporation that sees its people as an important asset needs to provide effective employee support in a crisis. The first step is to make sure they are trained.

Think strategic

It’s hard to see the writing on the wall with your back to it!  It’s too easy to get trapped into focusing on an immediate challenge – and not to look far enough ahead. A team, or someone, needs to be thinking long term from the outset.

Don’t make it worse..

Until the world thinks the crisis is fixed, there’s a lot an organisation can say to make things worse for itself. Stay on message and talk ‘actions, actions, actions’.

BP’s crisis was the first energy industry disaster of the social media age. The result was that information – good and bad – travelled at an exceptionally fast rate, was dominated by digital and saw demand for it go through the roof. But some of the most effective communication took place face to face.

The communications landscape is now much, much broader than it was. Organisations – particularly corporate communicators – should take note and learn because 2011 will bring its own crop of crises.

Neil Chapman worked as a communicator for BP until last year. He has 25+ years experience dealing with crises and difficult public affairs issues around the globe. He founded Alpha Voice Communications consultancy to focus on crisis communications readiness, presentation training and issues management. Go to find out more.