How long will it take to get over the press release thing?

Now, I’m not saying press releases are dead. That debate went on several years ago. There’s a time and a place for a press release. But, there’s not much time and place for one in crisis communication. Yet, over and over and over I see plans where everything is focused on getting out a press release. There may be some other things in there, like maybe talking to the community–eventually, maybe even using social media (as long as it doesn’t get ahead of getting out the press release and only if God and everyone below Him/Her approves it).

If you are responsible for your organization’s crisis plan, look at it right now and answer this question straight out: is this focused on the media and getting out press releases or holding press conferences? If so, stuff it in the 1990s files where it belongs and get it updated.

Did the Boston Police hold press conferences during the manhunt? Yep, and some media were there and some of the coverage was carried. But, that was hours after the real story came out and that means hours after much of the media and public interest went away. The media needed those press conference so they could get a little fresh video of the faces involved to add to their story if something new came up. But that’s about it.

So, how was the story told? Two ways: through the rebroadcast to millions of the Boston Police radio chatter. And through the Twitter account of the Boston Police, plus the Twitter feeds of the few hundred bystanders who were reporting what they were seeing during those dramatic moments as the police closed in on the boat where the suspect was hiding. If you weren’t one of the literally millions following these sources directly, then you were one of the millions watching it on TV as the reporters were using these sources to report the news. I was watching Twitter when Deputy Commissioner John Daley tweeted that the suspect was in captivity and the manhunt was over. I waited for about a minute before that tweet was reported on CNN live.

There is still a time and a place for a release–but I would never ever any more call it a press release. Why? Because the media are just one of many important audiences to get it. Call it an information release, or an update, or a situation report, or “Message to All Those Important to Us.” Getting rid of the term press release in your crisis communication plan may be one of the most important things you do because it communicates to one and all–from CEO and Board Chair through all team members–that your job is to communicate to those whose opinion about your organization is most important to the future. That includes the press, but goes far, far beyond it.

Why is this so important? Hey, you live in the age of digital communications and smart phones. Let’s say you invested all of your grandma’s inheritance in XYZ company and you are counting on it for your retirement. You follow its progress as if your future depended on it. You track their Facebook, “like it,” follow their Twitter feed, even take advantage of their interactive website to put in a question or two to their Investor Relations department–which they answer promptly. Then, something goes horribly wrong. Maybe a product safety issue, a recall. Maybe a toxic spill hurting people and the environment. Maybe wrong doing of some senior execs. Panic. What happened? What are they doing about it? How are they protecting your future–you have to know and you have to know now.

So you go to their website. Nothing. You shoot an inquiry into their wonderful interactive Investor Relations website. Nothing. Or worse: they tell you that they are too busy putting a press release together to be able to answer any questions right now. You have no recourse to get the information from the media. It’s all over the place. You check social media but all you see is anti-corporate venom and how XYZ company is now in the Hall of Shame. The media reports are awful, but you are part of the 71% of the American public who believes most of what the media feeds you isn’t exactly the truth. And you think, why on God’s green earth would these smart people trust the media–whose primary job is to attract an audience through fear, doubt and outrage–to tell their story for them? Why, in this age of digital communications, of social media, of Mailchimp for goodness sake, can’t they shoot me an email or put it out on their Twitter account so I know what the heck is going on?

OK, I’m ranting. But I frankly don’t quite get it. From the largest government agencies to most municipal or county emergency management departments, to major utilities and corporations the story is the same: if something goes wrong we have to put out a press release–preferably in the first hour.

Sorry, but if this is your plan, you are going to be disappointed.

5 thoughts on “How long will it take to get over the press release thing?”

  1. I like to think of a steady flow of facts as providing the CONTENT of the response: where did it happen, who is responding, what is being deployed, how much is spilled, etc. (4 of the 5 W’s)

    If an organization is providing a stream of concise, short content (tweets, bullet points, FAQs), stakeholders will gather, stay and look for more information from you. If rapid content is not forthcoming, stakeholders will find other sources, and not come back to you.

    If content is flowing regularly and rapidly, you will have the opportunity to provide CONTEXT – broader statements of purpose, process and perspective. These contextual updates replace the ‘Press Release’ and are available to everyone.

    Imagine a press conference or community meeting where presenters could focus on purpose, process and perspective….. because the facts were already out there.

    Imagine stakeholders interested in your perspective instead of being angry you’re not providing information.

    Imagine trusting stakeholders with facts… and imagine them welcoming your context because they believe you are sharing transparently and directly.

  2. Thanks for sharing this Gerald. From a corporate perspective, the barriers are high with regard to breaking through the press-release-only mindset. There exists a very real “marathon effect” in terms of operations managers or even country heads understanding how social media has changed – and continues to change – the crisis communications game. Even with very robust internal crisis training programs and drill opportunities, these new realities are slow to sink in. And that doesn’t even touch the legal approvals that can create significant time uncertainties for getting early communications out the door. But we’re pushing on these issues every day. Blog posts such as yours help me reiterate our teaching points with key internal stakeholder groups, so thanks for helping us nudge the ball forward.

  3. It seems government is leading the way in real time crisis communication. At last night’s security scare in Jacksonville, airport personnel were Tweeting in real time to keep people safe and inform them.

  4. Oh boy, thanks for bringing this whole issue up. I coach small businesses how to do their own publicity and have to break them of the “do a press release” mindset early on. In my experience the people sending out these type of press releases are out of touch as to how they are received. The senders want the press release to be used as is and not be bothered with a lot of pesky questions. In many cases they do not want to hear anything back from the recipients at all. The age of “FAQ” press releases has arrived. I bet most recipients find there is no useful contact information included with the release, they don’t want you to call. I am a fan of sending a few targeted, focused emails designed to open up a dialogue so you can work with the subject matter as it unfolds and guide it through the various systems. OK, thanks again for this. Edward Smith.

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