In our public information roles, we always hear that we should be in front of a story, to proactively respond. We are provided with a story of how a bad story didn’t reach fever pitch in the media due to some PR Director’s ability to beat the coverage. There’s little to no research (that I know of) that a bad story can be avoided by prompt release.
All of that said it’s a plausible theory and I, along with my colleagues, believe it to be true. There was a nice opportunity recently to test this theory, and it was provided by our friends at the US CDC and EPA. The Homeland Security Watch blog picked up nicely on the difference. First the CDC:
[T]he CDC reached out to the Huffington Post to deny the existence of any “virus or condition that would reanimate the dead (or one that would present zombie-like symptoms).” [...] [T]he CDC decided to get ahead of the story and attempt to put an end to silly rumors.
To me this showed a remarkable level of social media awareness and a willingness to engage the public early and on issues not traditionally considered within the public health arena.
Then, the EPA:
The Environmental Protection Agency was spying on Midwestern farmers with the same aerial “drones” used to kill terrorists overseas.
This month, the idea has been repeated in TV segments, on multiple blogs and by at least four congressmen.
At this point the EPA should have been alerted to this spreading meme and the possibility of a further negative public relations impact. [...] They waited until:
At EPA headquarters, a spokesman said, the first inquiries about EPA drones began coming in.
While “getting ahead of the story” is an important part of this dynamic, I would argue that the use of social media by the CDC was just as important. We all have things in our jobs that are important to get out, but aren’t press release worthy (A press release saying you don’t use drones to spy on Americans? Probably not.). What do you do with those things that are nice to release, but you don’t really want to make a big hub-bub about? I’d suggest a blog post.
And I’m not the only one suggesting moving a good bit of your releases to the web, either. The Journalistics blog recently posted on a way to move your agency away from press releases altogether and gives the example of Google, which issues their releases via blog post.
Something to consider, especially as our friends in the press find themselves more pressed for time and besieged by releases.