I got an email today from a respected consulting organization that provided details on a recent ransomware attack that occurred over the July 4th weekend. The rather polished e-news alert was robust in its information, but there was a problem. It’s two weeks too late, and I’ve already gleaned all of the information in the article from other sources when the news first broke.
Keep in mind, I don’t fault the communications team behind the e-newsletter. I’ve been there many, many times. The problem is cultural, and it’s one of the most common reasons why organizations don’t get better results from their communications programs.
Their systems are clumsy
Let’s start with the piece, its purpose and what it does right. The e-news alert goes out to friends and clients and others, including media and analysts. It’s on brand and on message. It’s the kind of thing that if you’re the communications team member responsible, you can insert it into your portfolio and it will help you get your next good job. You can share it with your mom or dad or mother-in-law, and they will think you do important things.
Clients of the firm are reminded that the firm is thinking of them even if the information in the piece is a little stale. But that’s about it.
Why it doesn’t work
So, now let’s turn to why the piece doesn’t work and how that can seriously hinder larger communications efforts.
I’m sure the communications team worked as fast as they could to get this out. I wouldn’t be surprised if the moment the ransomware attack happened on July 4th weekend that the communications team were already working on it, instantly.
But then it’s likely that the corporate culture took over. First, they may have had to run the idea for the topic up the chain and find the right subject matter expert. Even if they knew who that SME was at the time, it was a holiday weekend. Perhaps they had trouble connecting, or they didn’t even try until everyone was back at work on the 5th or 6th.
At that point, someone had to research and write the e-news alert. If they only started after the holiday weekend, that took at least a couple of days. Then it had to be circulated for reviews and approvals. That probably took a day or two at best.
Throughout, there were likely conference calls and meetings to discuss. Among the discussions were likely, “Is this even an issue we want to touch?;” “What are the downsides?;” “Is he the right SME?”
Along with those discussions, there was the meeting with the graphic designer to discuss layout, artwork, timing and scheduling. You have to allow time for that.
Once the draft of the piece is inserted into the design, again, that has to be circulated for review and approval.
Then, of course, there is the meeting with the database person to make sure the e-news alert goes out to all the right people and none of the wrong people. Add a day.
Late in this process, someone in communications may have asked whether the firm should limit itself to an e-news alert, and whether a news release should be added to the mix, along with some media outreach. It’s now well more than a week after the fact, and the greenlight is given to pitch the media.
Everything goes as efficiently as possible, under these common circumstances, and an e-news alert about a three-week old event arrives in my inbox, and that of thousands of other recipients. At this point, publicists are reaching out to news reporters on a story that is now firmly into the “old news” category. But there was no effort to counsel leadership or manage expectations from the communications function in the planning process, so the publicists are charged with selling a story well past its expiration date.
In the end, the firm has an e-news alert and a news release to demonstrate output and, for the record, “timely” response to breaking developments. But in reality, the firm achieved nothing because its culture is slow and stilted, and it’s not alone.
How it can and should work
Throughout the pandemic and beyond, I’ve had the good fortune to work with a great client that has a stable of SMEs on a variety of topics, most notably, all things pandemic.
As the story broke and evolved in real time, our SMEs became used to the drill. They were same-day responsive to media requests and became quite adept at adjusting their messaging to the needs of particular journalists and media outlets.
The pandemic response media relations effort quickly became a well-oiled machine. And to top it all off, as that effort gained momentum, more potential SMEs saw the attraction of the effort and wanted to be a part of it, expanding our offerings to the media and increasing our effectiveness.
As we ease away from the pandemic and pandemic-dominant stories, the process is the same, and the program includes everything from same-day interviews to op-eds and opinion pieces on a wide range of matters.
Recently, one of our SMEs noticed a breaking news event in California and proactively drafted an op-ed for a daily in the region as the event was still unfolding. Our SME knew the drill by then. He knew how many words the op-ed had to be based on our prior experience with him, and he knew the tone it had to strike. He already had the data he needed to make his argument, which centered on the societal challenges around the event and how future events like that could be avoided.
Before the day was over, we had a solid draft to send to targeted opinion editors in the area, and we did. We submitted an op-ed on the breaking news event and what it means before the initial 24-hour news cycle had finished.
That was key. The piece was accepted for publication quickly and it ran the following day.
While an op-ed is a quite different project than an e-news alert, both examples show illustrate the difference culture makes in getting results.
Subject matter experts need to be identified before something happens, not afterward. Subjects for possible content or publicity need to be identified in advance, if not by the entire team, by the SMEs themselves.
The team needs to be able to connect with each other and SMEs in real time to jump-start the process for pursuing real-time communications opportunities.
Scrap your traditional review and approval procedures
The typical approval process needs to be scrapped. Yes, scrapped. The world and the media aren’t waiting for you to get it right. They aren’t waiting at all.
You have to get it right before something happens and in real time so that your SMEs have the answers when the public and the media want them, which is now.
Am I advocating elimination of the approval process? Not at all.
I am saying that the drafting of content, the identification of targets and tactics, and the decision-making on approvals have to happen simultaneously.
Whomever needs to sign off on a draft need to be notified in advance that something is in the works and they will need to provide immediate attention to it and be prepared to turn it around in less than an hour, ideally.
The whole process needs to be compacted into a 24-hour window if that is possible and feasible if the effort centers on generating publicity. If the effort centers on producing a timely e-news alert or something similar, your grace period may be up to 48 hours, but beyond that, you’re pushing the limits of timeliness.
This is important because at the end of the day, the communications function is judged by the results it achieves, not its good intentions or outputs. To get those results, you need to get things done and out while the public still cares and is paying attention.
∼ ∼ ∼
Tim O’Brien, APR, is founder and principal at O’Brien Communications, a corporate communications, crisis and issues management firm in Pittsburgh. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 412/854-8845. O’Brien Communications provides C-suite corporate communications services.
Also published on Medium.