By Richard Torrenzano
Under siege, chief executives and corporate legal counsels would do well to heed warnings of an 18th century philosopher, theologian and scientist who might have envisioned today’s digital world when he said: “The more elaborate our means of communication, the less we communicate.”
Joseph Priestly recognized a timeless maxim most business leaders appear to have forgotten: In times of complexity — less is more — and simplicity rules.
Leaders risk neglecting one of the most basic and important tools that speaks in their voice: the perfect humble news release.
The Old Press Release
From inception in the Dark Ages, the old “press release” was an effort to have company news reported the next day in newspapers and that week in industry journals.
The old press release was solely sent to ”press”, hence the name, and read only by journalists who functioned as gatekeepers and filters between companies and their stakeholders.
The press decided what was or was not news, how important your announcement was, and often, releases were summarily deleted or tossed.
In the old days, important company constituents: investors, customers, business partners, employees, regulators, vendors, local community leaders … did not have the same opportunity to make their own judgments reading company announcements.
Today, the press is distorted. Not only because of fake news, but disruptive technology drove a paradigm shift, decentralizing and democratizing information so all can read, comment, or act on … at the same time.
Professionally, press is now referred to as “media”, and all media organizations have significant digital components. Media today encompass TV, radio, blogs and social, websites, podcasts, digital journals, alerts and the like. They still comment on company statements…. and they should.
All company public announcements are instantly retrievable 24/7, even in Timbuktu, Mali. Service there is spotty, but available.
New Perfect Humble News Release
Actually, the news release is more important today than ever before.
Considering all this, one would think companies would better utilize announcements and news releases?
It reinforces messages and vision, explains strategy ... or changes in strategy, defines why new products or services are important to the user and the company, clarifies earnings or financial issues, provides critical information in a crisis, shares achievements and milestones, all without filters.
A CEO of a Dow Jones Industrial Average listed company understood this. He told several board members, and me that he personally reviews and edits every major news release the company distributes.
I knew that, as I receive comments from him on crucial announcements. And, importantly, he always likes to discuss those edits. However, several board members at the time quickly responded, “that seems a huge waste of your time?”
After all, aren’t legions of corporate and outside legal counsel, communications, investor relations, financial executives, sales or marketing teams, consultants and others paid to do just that?
Six Actions to Develop the Perfect Humble News Release
Ask basic questions. Is this public announcement necessary, or are there better channels to distribute this information? Does this news release contain “news” for stakeholders?
Is this — bad or good — news that must be announced? Will this add to company reputation, share value, etc., or will it be just another ho hum announcement that few really care about?
One Governor, One Message. Many different, somewhat unconnected people in organizations write various public documents.
Communications or marketing write some. Investor relations or financial professionals write others. And, at midnight, a slightly tired law associate or corporate attorney may take a crack at still others. All have different disciplines, points of view and writing styles.
Key Idea: When complete, read the entire document and ask “What are the two or three take outs that a reader – not you – will remember? Are the company’s overall messages evident?”
Key Idea: Coordinate writing all public documents to include the same actual language descriptions and key messages. If you analyzed all documents over a year, you would probably find many description discrepancies.
Engage Readers. Begin with two crisp, clear, catchy, short sentences. That is the headline. Not three or more sentences. That will capture and engage readers…. about the issue, not about the company.
Key Idea: Headlines are important as newswires, editors or technologies pick up your headline and send instant news flashes. These alerts or flashes are what investors and important stakeholders see first.
“ABC company announced today……”
“Workers safeguarded by new technology which protect…. was developed by ABC company.”
Which headline captures your attention?
Content: State why announcement is important to customer and reader, not just the company.
Today, content is king. And, content is no longer about you, your company or client.
Content is about the reader, viewer or listener. Content should immediately engage them … not quickly urge them to press their delete button.
“Does this document provide new information and knowledge for the customer, reader, markets and then explain why it is important to the company”?
Key Idea: Please ask that question three times slowly every time you begin writing a public document.
Write Simple English. News releases are important legal, regulatory, scientific, promotional and informative articles.
News releases are not briefs or reports. Those can be linked from your webpage in the news release. Under no circumstance should they be written in Greek, gibberish or compounded by industry acronyms. You would not believe what we see over the course of a year.
We live in a Twitter world of 280 instant simple characters. Most lawyers, doctors, scientists and financial executives were not trained to write or think in our digital realm.
Consider these documents are opportunities that spotlight important information, messages or strategy. Double check facts, not just numbers.
Key Idea: Write news releases or announcements as if you are speaking to freshman college students. That keeps language easy to read and provides opportunity to think.
An event at United Airlines emphasizes how it should not be done.
A big operational mistake, compounded by dreadful communications, was the incident on UA flight #3411 in 2017. That’s when a passenger was injured while being forcibly removed from a fully boarded aircraft. Most of us still remember those videos and will for some time. It all went terribly wrong rapidly.
United had to distribute several statements/news releases over a few days, as management and attorneys received enormous pushback because they did not understand how to communicate in simple English and deliver consoling messages. Additionally, contradicting incident eyewitnesses said UA’s statement was false.
United statements also did not consider the digital world we live in today. Video taken by passengers was widely picked up by media. In 24 hours, one video shared almost 90,000 times and viewed almost 7 million times. That impacts reputation, sales, careers, ability to attract and retain staff, increased government oversight and trailing lawsuits.
Key Idea: Accuracy and social media must be first in thinking and formulating any public statement.
Utilize Trends: Link announcements to current news or industry trends.
Key Idea: Use colorful charts, graphs or photos, even short 45-second videos, to personalize and emphasize your story.
So, that editor-CEO seems to be on to something many are not: news releases or public announcements today are records captured in databases, key word searches and delivered unfiltered in the company’s voice and tone, without a pundit filter, to all stakeholders.
Our ridiculed CEO realized the “upside” as well as the “downside” of information and strategy transmitted instantly to all stakeholders.
So, should CEOs review their company news releases? Probably not all of them, but savvy executives and legal counsel must be aware of consequences, as well as meaningful opportunities, when information reaches thousands of stakeholders directly and unfiltered.
Warren Buffet has a reputation for communicating effectively. He has said he is not an astute investor in high tech. But as the digital world emerged, he saw value in news releases.
That’s why in 2006 Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway bought a news release distribution service – Business Wire – a global digital distributor of corporate news, multimedia and regulatory filings.
Think Buffet had a vision?
Published July 13, 2020.