The Press Release Diet

Denise Graveline of the Don’t Get Caught blog has been on a bit of a mission this summer to get people to onto the hottest new diet; the Press Release Diet.

It’s an interesting idea that recommends PR folks and PIOs give up press releases. Like cutting Oreo’s out of your diet (which I could never do), it won’t be easy but it’s for the best. She recommends that you stop issuing press releases and instead issue updates to the media and public via regular social media updates. The idea stems from an experiment done by the Library of Congress a few years back where they didn’t issue a single press release for a new initiative and instead relied on disseminating word via social media. (The PDF report is really that interesting.)

Her latest post on the Press Release Diet is about a small, local government communications shop that has given up on press releases and instead relies on social media, website and email for their external comms. They’ve found that making the switch has provided a number of benefits and lessons learned and mention seven specifically:

1. Happier internal clients
2. Happier reporters
3. More time for planning
4. Improved creativity
5. Focused choices in social sharing
6. Implementation takes time
7. Improved public response

Check out the links above for more on the Press Release Diet, or Ms. Graveline’s other recent post here. And, interestingly enough, I wrote about something similar earlier this summer, too.

Communicating With No Audience

Yesterday I kind of pulled the rug out from under a few people with that whole "Your Audience is a Lie" bit. Today, we talk about what that means for us as communicators (but I’m still not walking it back).

So, let’s say you agree with me about the audience and you can no longer write a message for a person. We know they won’t sit there and wait for your message. They’ve got fifty thousand other messages streaming at them at the same time, and many of those messages (especially for folks in public health) counteract. (And let’s not pretend like our government messages are nearly as slick as our, ahem, competitors.)

Assuming that your message does get through, what if they don’t necessarily agree with what you’ve said? What if they talk back? What if they tell their friends (who tell their friends, etc.)? I think that’s the essence of Mr. Livingston’s post, that our "audience" is not a passive observer or sponge. They are now friends, stakeholders, enemies, crazy people.

They. Talk. Back.

Inserting that idea into your communications flow is the first step towards the future of communications. We can no longer stop at "audience receives message," we now have to build in feedback loops. And (this part is really important) actually use them to engage in conversations and improve our messages and learn how to do our jobs better–directly from the people who know best!

Beyond those newly empowering conversations, there are even better reasons to shift away from an audience-centric model of communications: to stop limiting ourselves. Messages written for one audience will only succeed with that audience. There is no latitude given for serendipity or kismet.

People are not meant to happen upon our messages and be moved. But like cat videos and hours whiled away on Wikipedia, our modern, information-addled brains learn through these so-called weak ties. We see something that looks slightly askew or interesting or novel and we investigate. When was the last time you found ten minutes of attention to devote to a brochure written for your "audience type?" When was the last time you promised yourself you’d only look up one thing online, and then came to your senses an hour later looking at a Wikipedia article about Helen of Troy?

I say let your content be free, and reap the attention of people who may not necessarily fit into your target audience.

Your Audience is a Lie

There are certain people out there that seem to be five steps ahead of the rest of us. They don’t just see what’s going on out on the field,they see the rationale behind the plays. They see what’s coming from a mile away and never need to react, instead they prepare and are already in motion when the right time strikes.

This post by Geoff Livingston is the perfect example of being ahead of the game. Of questioning the very foundations of the work that we do prior to it crumbling apart like so much clay.

You, as a communicator, do not have audiences anymore. Audiences are a figment of your imagination, constructed and maintained by the conservatism (read: I didn’t say laziness) of our field. Any attempt to segment, chop up, target, otherwise focus your audience only serves to minimize the effectiveness of your message.

The perspective of messaging towards audiences offers a self centered attitude. It’s also a bad strategy. Audience assumes a position of authority over customers, and that a brand has captive attention just waiting for a performance.

No one wakes up and wants to be marketed to by tons companies and nonprofits throughout their day. It’s something most people endure.

People are audiences when they pay to attend an event, when they volunteer to receive a performance.

Think about who you target your messages to. Do they volunteer to receive your messages? Or do you scrape and cajole to get five seconds in their ear and, regrettably, usually fail?

How did this happen? Communication 101, social marketing 101, hell, half of my blog posts and presentations, start with audiences. So, what changed? Well, the Internet changed it all. Think of it this way: I used to be part of someone’s audience, then I got a blog and a Twitter account, and then I became a broadcaster, part of the media.

Geoff says:

We have a relationship here, and you can talk back. Further, I realize that I am just one of you, all members of the same community.

What does this mean for your messages moving forward?

UPDATE: The wonderful and amazing Patrice Cloutier shared this video of Clay Shirky talking about JUST THIS POINT. Thanks so much, Patrice!

Preparing for Isaac

The very best part of doing emergency and crisis communications is that it’s a living art. Art in the sense that, well, some do it good, some do it poorly, and the state of the art is always improving. Living in the sense that every day there are new examples of the art in action,and each new instance informs subsequent instances. Every day is a learning experience, yet at the same time, required reading.

Hurricane Katrina is to many folks in public health, mass care, emergency management, public safety and human services, a watershed event. Many of us who started in their respective fields after 2006 refer to the event as a primary reason why they chose their pursuit. Oh, the ink that has been spilled over the preparation and response to Katrina. What we learned from those days has remade many of those very same fields. Reputations were made, and destroyed, based on what happened seven years ago on the Gulf coast.

Amazingly, we are on the precipice of a similar situation. A massive hurricane, Isaac this time, is bearing down on New Orleans once again. How will we, as risk communicators, as media, as government communicators, as the public, act? Have we learned from Katrina? Have we learned enough?

Already, the very state of the world has changed the face of this hurricane. Social media networks like Twitter and Facebook are veritable fonts of information offering minute-by-minute updates on the run-up to the storm’s landfall. And I’d have to believe that situations like when the only time the nation’s responders knew about hundreds of people stranded on highway overpasses was because a news chopper flew by won’t happen again, if only because (if it happened) half of those people will be on Twitter pleading for help.

While we’re hoping that the disaster doesn’t unfold the same way, I can already see how previous disasters have changed how information has been disseminated prior to landfall. One of the best practices I love to speak about is from our friends at JoplinTornadoInfo. And already there’s a HurricaneIsaacInfo page on Facebook. Staffed 24 hours per day by folks operating in another of my favorite case studies, the Virtual Operations Support Team.

The storm is big, and dangerous. But these two things give me hope that this hurricane will turn out differently.

Should We Even Strive to be Trusted?

Great post yesterday by Gerald Baron. He brought up something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: trust. So many of our trusted figureheads have failed us in that charge or have been smeared enough that we question whether our trust in them is deserved anymore.

As someone still new to the communications and public information fields, I try to read everything I can about succeeding and have found that every single tip starts with, “establish and maintain trust.” I question whether that’s even possible anymore, though. No matter how above board we are, how saintly, how deserving of people’s trust we are, what’s to stop someone from smearing that trustworthiness in order to score a cheap political point. I’m sure you can think of dozens of examples demonstrating just that.

And I think that’s an important point. We caution young folks like myself that trust takes a lifetime to build and a second to lose. Like the only way our trustworthiness can be affected is by our personal failures, and not by some competing agency, government regulator, political interest group or other interested party.

Earlier I talked about how people today are influenced, increasingly by their personal networks, not by those trusted talking heads and government folks. Not by us. Increasingly, the public is becoming even hostile to government communications.

Given how vital trust is to our work, how easy it is to lose it, and how it’s less and less effective, how much effort should we spend to build that trust? Mind you, I’m not saying we shouldn’t strive to be a trustful source of information, but given how critical it seems to be to what we do, and how difficult to impossible it is to do well… It just seems like this is a place where a devil’s advocate might be helpful.

So, I ask you, are we moving into an age where government communicators can no longer count on trust as a part of our toolbox? Should that matter to us? What should we do to take the place of trust in this new world?