POST RELEASE: Life After the Press Release Dies

LandscapeIt’s seven years since the ground-breaking post ‘Die! Press Release! Die! Die!’ was written.

Tom Foremski’s this-can’t-go-on wail reads as powerfully as a Martin Luther deconstruction of one of the central pillars of the public relations industry.

“I’ve been telling the PR industry for some time now that things cannot go along as they are,” Tom wrote, “business as usual while mainstream media goes to hell in a hand basket.”

There is no point, he says, in writing slabs of text in journalese, and sending them to journalists when the traditional newspaper industry is dying and the news landscape is undergoing a digital revolution whether it likes it or not, Tom argued.

He’s right. The future is the message being shaped as web content and as social media conversation that has to be two-way and authentic, fun and interesting. Public relations people, no, communications people need to realise this if they are to still be relevant.

But that’s not to say that the press release is dead overnight. It’ll be here but diminishing.

Twelve months ago at an LGComms event I pointed to Tom’s post in a presentation and explained why this was something people needed to know. For five years I’ve been pointing to rapid change from my very small corner of the digital allotment.

Other louder voices have seen what I’ve seen too.

Government director of communications Alex Aiken made a similar point although more forcefully in a speech to the PRCA conference reported by PR Week. 

Ashley Brown, Coca Cola’s global director for social media and digital communications, recently talked about the wish to end not just the press release but the corporate website too.

“For the first time ever, our PR teams are being asked to think beyond a press release or beyond a toolkit or beyond a launch package. They had to think: ‘Wow, what is a two-minute really high quality video that someone would really want to share with the friends?'”

“We’re finally breaking the last connections to the corporate website. I think the corporate website is over.  I think it’s dead. I think everyone needs to start thinking beyond it. How can you turn it into a media property and hopefully the age of press release pr is over as well.

“I’m on a mission. If there’s one thing I do it’s to kill the press release. We have a commitment to reduce the number of press releases by half by the end of this year. I want them gone entirely by 2015. That’s our goal.”

That’s fine for Coke. But how easy is it if you work somewhere else?

Actually, press release murder is a pretty tricky subject to raise amongst comms people. It’s akin to telling people the skills they’ve spent a career crafting are now not so important. It’s telling a room full of sailors to put down their 8301863218_bdbac61ef4_oreef knot and lore and learn how to service an outboard motor. PR people are often former journalists who have in any event spent years as juniors crafting the ability to write press releases. Every word is pored over and shaped by committee. That control gives power. To attack the use of the press release is to launch a personal attack on the career history of PR people.

In the UK, the Government Digital Service published a fascinating study – the half life of news – of more than 600 press releases on gov.uk that looked at the traffic they got. Many spike quickly then fade like digital chip paper.

But if the battle is to be won it’s probably not the revolutionary cry of ‘Die, press release!’ that will win in it. It’s not even a study of how effective the numbers are in getting a story across that will lead the victory, although that will be important. It’ll actually be you, me and the people you went to school with who vote with their feet and share the sharable content.

There is nothing so boring, I’ve heard it said, as the future of news debate amongst journalists because what they say will have no bearing whatsoever on what the outcome will be.

It’ll be things like Oreo’s mugging of the Superbowl with an image of a biscuit created on the spot and tweeted and Facebooked within minutes to take advantage of a powercut. It wasn’t the lavish TV ads that was talked about. It was the real time marketing team who made the sharable image and the 15,000 retweets and 20,000 likes it achieved.

Oreo-Expion-Screenshot

What’s real time marketing? It’s people making content that capitalises on real time events. Look it up. You’ll need to know it.

All this is why I’m finding communications utterly fascinating right now.

And you have to ask yourself the question, if you are not thinking of what post-press release life looks like now, what will you be doing in five years?

Creative commons credits

Sorry, no gas http://flic.kr/p/7vtFzZ

Coke http://flic.kr/p/dDBdGJ


FUTURE GOVCOMMS: Training, Trust and Re-Training Ministers

So, what should the future of government communications look like? If you think it’s tweeting press releases wearing a One Direction t-shirt you’re wrong.

Refreshingly, the UK government has stood up and on The Guardian website admitted it had a good idea. But not a definitive one.

The newspaper asks readers what it would tell Alex Aiken the government’s executive director of government communications. Which is either a blast of refreshing openness or a bit of window dressing. Actually, let’s take them at face value. Because no-one really has the last word. And Alex used to be localgov as I am now.

A changing landscape

If you are interested in communications, have a look at the new draft communications plan here.

Not only that but whole swathes of the government-wide communications plan should be printed out and shared vigorously. Not least the paragraph:

“We are operating against a fast changing backdrop.

“Digital TV and broadband access at home are now the norm.

“45 per cent of viewing is now of non-terrestrial channels, three times more than ITV1.

“Half of homes now have some form of personal video recorder such as Sky Plus.

“Newspaper sales continue to decline but the growth of online versions means that some content – often entertainment related-news stories – can reach more people than ever before.

“Social media channels are playing an ever greater role in spreading news and opinion.”

That they see that the landscape is changing is a profound relief to me. The facts loom so large as to be undeliable and people are starting slowly to grasp this. Whether we are all moving as fast as we could to embrace change is something else.

“In simple terms government should continue to shift from a static or traditional view of channels and audiences to one that reflects people’s lives, preferences and influences.”

It also talks about the three things that government comms needs to do. The legal obligation to tell people about big planning matters, for example. Or the explaining Minister’s priorities. And the attempt to change behaviours.

For local government too…

It’s tempting to think that local government can do this too. At a stroke. As a sector. But that would be silly. And it also forgets that people in Devon know more about what channels Devon people use than people who live in Dudley. But it’s absolutely the path that local government comms needs to go down.

It also means that comms people need to acknowledge they may not have all the answers to comms any more. Will that undermine the profession? Not, really. A bit of refreshing honesty is vital. Besides, I’ve learned so much about digital comms from bloggers, engineers and environmental health officers.

The 37 skills a comms person will need

Last summer I wrote a post that talks about the 37 skills we’ll need. I was a bit wrong. We won’t all need those. But you can bet your bottom dollar that teams will and the more you’ll have the better it’ll be for you.

The list includes traditional, digital, community building, mapping, infographics, social media, story telling, political nous and lots more beside.

8510599726_27c28f402f_hWe’ll need generalists but digital specialists who will horizon scan and share the knowledge.

We’ll need better training. We’ll need better ways to share good ideas. We’ll need more things like commscamp where local and central government people came together to do just that (disclaimer: I helped organise that.)

But more important than that, much more we’ll need the space to experiment and try new things. That’ll come from the top. It’ll come from Ministers themselves and senior officers. Or rather, it’ll come from our ability to re-train the Minister that something on Twitter is more important than the Today programme’s running order. Or in local government terms, that’s the local newspaper.

When I was a journalist we had an amazing media law refresher. We returned to the chalk face keen to push the boundaries. We were slapped down by our news editors. Training is wasted unless the people at the top get it too.

Salvation will come from an ongoing bombardment of stats, facts, figures, reporting back and internal communications. We think training is the answer. It’s not. It’s the start. Space to fail and learn from failing is.

But we also need to think about trust. More specifically, the Edelman Trust Barmeter that talks of how trust in institutions is up. But trust in those at the top is low but trust in those at the bottom is high. In other words, we don’t believe the chief executive of Royal Mail. But we trust our postman.

We need to be able to deliver comms outside of comms and give the people on the frontline the tools to communicate like West Midlands Police do and like we do in growing parts of local government too. At this point I link to Morgan Bowers a countryside ranger at Walsall Council with 1,100 followers on Twitter who are receptive to explanations about why saplings have to be cut down.

It’ll also mean hiring bloggers for their skills. Not just journalists.

So much is made in the Government document about savings. I’d like to hear more about results and what exciting possibilities we have stretching out in front of us too, please.

Creative commons credits
Houses of Parliament http://www.flickr.com/photos/the_nige/5032302221/sizes/l/
Commscamp http://www.flickr.com/photos/paul_clarke/8510599726/sizes/h/