During a crisis, will press releases be a thing of the past?

Post by: Kim Stephens

The social media and emergency management weekly chat focused on the changing nature of the press release in the age of social media. I simply asked participants: Are press releases dead?

In the back of my mind I was thinking about the most extensive use of social media by any response organization to date–Queensland Police Service in Australia.  In past crises, before the QPS agency adopted social media, they issued 15 or so press releases per day. However, during the most recent back-to-back flooding and a cyclone events  they put out 1 press release a day–just one. Why? Social media enabled them to release information as they received it.

In the old days, QPS Media would be over 90 per cent reactive in a crisis as it tried to respond to media enquires. But in the age of Facebook and Twitter, the tables drastically turned and QPS was freed from having to respond to questions from journalists.

‘We estimated that around 70 per cent of our work during the crises was proactive. We were putting out information rather than responding to requests for information,’ says Kym Charlton, executive director, media and public affairs, at QPS. She estimates that previously up to 90 per cent of the unit’s work in crises was reactive. (See full article here.)

This kind of proactive presence meant that they were updating to facebook and twitter every 10 minutes during the height of the crisis, it also meant that they were putting out information as soon as the PIO shop (or media unit as the call it) was told about it from the field, for example, road closures due to high water. We all know how long it normally takes to get a press release approved, vetted, sorted out, etc. but James Kliemt, the QPS Media senior digital communications officer stated:

 “…many government agencies tend to think that any statement they make on social media sites has to be ‘this big, giant motherhood statement on behalf of the agency’ although quite often it is just routine information. But he acknowledges some leopards find it hard to change their spots. ‘There was a gasp at a presentation we were at when someone said they needed ministerial approval for every tweet.”

So during the chat we focused on how difficult it might be to get our American (and Canadian) Emergency Management structure to change their spots. This lead to an interesting debate but I think Patrice Cloutier, a PIO from Canada, probably stated the reality:

There was a little debate among participants about whether or not press releases were still needed for those citizens not using social media; but, it was pointed out that press releases aren’t meant for the public. Ed Tobias stated that traditional media turns to social media to figure out what is happening whenever news is breaking–the AP desk, for example, monitors social media 24/7.

As a case in point, above is a tweet from a person just after the story started to break of a shooting on the University of Texas Austin campus. Coutney-in-Texas (the first person shown) asks “What [do] we know so far…do we have a hashtag?” This is a retweet from the Austin American Statesman, the local –and influential– newspaper. They clearly went directly to the student body, or anyone for that matter, for information: they were not sitting around waiting for a press release.

During the chat some folks still tried to push back and said that maybe the press releases still had a purpose–as a validation tool. Others thought this was quite misguided and very “1990s” since information moves so quickly today.

But I think Marcus went straight to the heart of the matter–the press release approval process. “It’s the approval process that’s out of date, not the piece of paper.” This actually reminds me of a great quote from James Kliemt of QPS media from the story mentioned and quoted above:

“What we did was not at all difficult. Teenagers could have done it; it’s only the public service culture that finds this stuff hard.”

Strange how this culture is the same the world-over. Someone in the chat stated that their PIO has to get press releases “perfect”. That culture, where sometimes lengthy approval processes and word-smithing have been the norm, will be difficult to change.

We then spun into a long conversation about veracity of social media and how to control rumors. It was noted that social media self-corrects, which simply means if someone is spouting something that is wrong, others will shout them down, virtually, of course. Public service organizations, by participating in these platforms, should also be able to spot rumors or misinformation more easily and therefore position themselves to give the correct information. In the example above, the University of Texas PIO could have been the one to answer the Austin American Statesman’s question.

Patrice, had a great four tweet statement, he said there are essentially three components to the communications response to a disaster: “first, you tell people what they need to know to protect themselves; second, you tell them information so they adopt the behaviour you want them to adopt, e.g. shelter or evacuate; third, is the public relations or political component, e.g. putting your response under the best possible light and positive perception.”

It seems it also boils down to trust. What info does the public trust? As was stated during the chat, if your organization take too long to get out information then you will loose the trust of the public, particularly if it is seen as #3 in Patrice’s list–politically motivated. This is also why Chiefb2 stated “[I] think you need to separate social media monitoring for Joint Information Center/Public Information Officer and intel/situational awareness: Looking for different things in high profile events.” Gary Oldham also made a great observation: “I think most press releases are fine examples of describing what we wish had really happened…”

We finished up with a discussion of how to change the culture or how to get old dogs to learn new tricks. It was decided that maybe, if social media were put in terms that the emergency management community understood, it might gain wider acceptance.  It was also discussed that social media also should be integrated into training offered by FEMA (which I think is happening). But Chris Hall said it best: “Social Media is not a replacement [for communications] it’s an amplifier. We plan for all hazards, we also need to plan for all methods of communication.”

Read the full archive of the very lively chat, graciously captured by @Emergency Traffic, here.

5 responses to “During a crisis, will press releases be a thing of the past?

  1. Press releases are dead in our neck of the woods during emergencies (and now during our day to day work, too). As noted in the #SMEMchat discussion, “press” releases are intended for the media. We want to talk directly to the public now, with the media being part of that public. If we have specific info for the media such as a special phone number or TV logistics, then of course we’ll send something separate. But at long last, press releases are not the gold standard anymore during emergencies. When we have info, we update our website and social media accounts. No need to package it into nice, neat press releases.

    This isn’t to say we won’t package info together such as 10 tips for situation X. We’ll do that just like the old press release but it’s not labeled press release.

    Hope others join the party — it’s safe! It’s personally/professionally liberating to not be held to an artificial gold standard for information dissemination.

  2. kim26stephens

    Thanks so much for your comment. Yes, I do hope people join the party!

  3. Great post and I couldn’t agree more. You inspired my latest post at http://www.eventuresincyberland.com/2011/05/is-twitter-king-and-press-releases-obsolete/ … I hope you’ll let me know if you agree or disagree or forgot anything!

  4. kim26stephens

    Thanks Monica-your post is great!

  5. A counter point – Every em organization needs a written record of what is said and what the organization’s response/position is. You may not call it a “press release”, it may be a current situation or update. But it needs to be a statement of what’s going on now, what is being done about it, what the organization expects to happen next and when the next regular communication with the public/media is going to be.

    You can put this in a blog, a web page or even linked from Facebook. But it needs to be there in long form.

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