One of the great exhortations, one of the absolute must to-do’s given during emergency public information classes today is that you have to let the media know when your next update is coming. Lots of folks even go so far as to say, “when I know something, you’ll know something.” (And between me and you, I’m a big fan of that.) But when you do those pretend little exercises in the afternoon of the class, the instructor always tilts her head at the end of your “press conference” and asks, “When will we know more?” And before high-fiving his newly-roped-into-this teammates our spokesman dismissively says, “We’ll have another press conference in four hours.”
Nobody asks what do you do when nothing’s happened. Almost without fail, these exercises are quickly developing scenarios that will have updates in a few hours. But what about when the situation is slowly developing. So slowly that, like a drop of pitch, updates are few and far between? I’m looking at you public health. How do you tamp down expectations and tell people, “Nothing’s happened,” and reasonably expect them to not believe you’re hiding something. I mean, people are dying here, man!
And this is the problem – as it turns out (because I had to go), B&Q [ed. note: a sort of Home Depot] is open normal hours on the bank holiday, but their site doesn’t tell me that, because nothing has changed so they have ‘nothing’ to tell me.
A simple “we are open as normal on bank holiday Monday” would have answered all my questions
This reminded me of my little election experiment last week, when I looked at a few random councils to see how they had done elections. Once or twice in the process I went to a county council website, and found nothing about elections at all. That’s because counties run elections on a four year cycle, and this year was (for these councils) not one of those years – so no elections. The districts had elections, but the county sites didn’t tell me that (quite a few county sites don’t acknowledge the existence of the districts).
We’re too much focused on making sure that the media knows what’s going on. Hence the exhortation to make sure they know when things have changed. They’re not interested in what’s not changed. Non-changes don’t bleed, so they don’t lead, so to speak.
Instead, we need to focus on our publics. We need to let them know the information that is relevant to them, not just interesting to the media. No less a blogger than Greg Licamele has said something very similar in a great post recently:
The whole public affairs enterprise needs a different focus if we want to remain relevant to the people we serve rather than becoming more irrelevant to journalists who have a different purpose.
What do you do when nothing’s happened? Make sure that everyone knows, not just the people who increasingly don’t care.