A while back, a “clumsily worded” press release caused some consternation for Australia’s Department of Immigration. While first dismissed as a low-level, operational statement, demonstrations in Melbourne’s city centre and growing media interest later forced the department’s minister and even the prime minister at the time out into the limelight.
Without dwelling on the details of the announcement issues by the Australian Border Force, which soon became #borderfarce on Twitter, it struck me that the good old press release can still cause so much of a stir. After all it is designed to generate positive press coverage, not make the headline as a PR fail itself! While there is never a 100 percent guarantee for anything in life (other than death and taxes as they say) here are a couple of learnings from the debacle to remind us of the basics:
What is the announcement about
The press release follows the pyramidal structure of a news article. This means answering the key questions in the first paragraph (Who, what, when, where, why and how?), with further details provided in decreasing order. Having a good think about these details before commencing work on the announcement. There is a risk that the draft will get increasingly convoluted, especially after numerous stakeholders and departments have provided input.
“While I said that, I really meant this”-type of apologies put the spokesperson in a pretty embarrassing position. Did he / she even have input to the quote before it was sent out to media? Or was it crafted by a low ranking PR hack as the government claimed in this instance? The reality is a press release quote will be used as if the person had spoken directly to the journalist, so it needs to be not only factually correct but the language beyond ambiguity.
All too often press releases are seen as a marketing exercise, but when things go wrong, management will be held accountable. While it can seem tedious at times, it pays to run the announcement past your legal team and senior managers before distribution to press.
It’s also important to remember that in this day and age, press releases are essentially news releases accessible to the wider public, not just journalists. While this brings a lot of advantages for marketing communications (read my piece here on the changing nature of the press release) it also means any statement that a company publishes online faces even greater public scrutiny.