I had a fascinating interview with a reporter yesterday on the subject of press releases. Press releases fascinating, you ask? Well, no not the releases themselves, but the words and phrases contained therein.
This particular journalist said she and her peers had noticed a dramatic increase in the use of bizarre and unintelligible words and phrases being used in press releases issued by publicly-traded companies. Most were chosen to "describe" a financial irregularity or misstatement. Some of the bon mots she shared with me were priceless and included: "procedural disconnects," "process inconsistencies" and "misaligned column calculations."
When asked why these obvious obfuscations were being inserted, I defended the corporate communications people and, instead, pointed the finger at the in-house lawyers. As we know, lawyers can be the bane of the communications person’s existence. While we try to clearly and consistently communicate during times of crisis, the typical barrister will either insert legal mumbo jumbo, totally water down what we submit or, worse, insist on saying nothing. The end result can be to alienate the journalist who, in turn, may be just a tad tougher in his or her subsequent article (or, imply that the corporation is trying to hide something because of its obtuse announcements).
In their defense, lawyers are concerned about what is said or written in light of any future legal action. So, while they focus on winning in court, the average lawyer is often clueless about winning in the court of public opinion.
I’ve often thought corporate and crisis communications courses should be taught at law schools (and, maybe, now some are). But, the fact remains that media continue to receive densely worded, impossible to decipher press releases from corporations whose legal beagles don’t realize the negative impact such prose has on the subsequent reporting (and resulting image).
I rest my case.
Press-release mumbo jumbo is just one way that lawyers prevent meaningful, valuable communication. Another oft-employed “strategy” that has the potential to damage public companies’ reputations with journalists involves the legal department instructing corporate communications to tell reporters: We are not allowed to talk to you about this matter because of securities law.
Except that in many instances – if not most – that simply isn’t true. A U.S. journalist working overseas is told, “We can’t talk to you about our company because the SEC will think we’re trying to drum up U.S. investors.” Not true: The SEC absolutely, categorically distinguishes between protected editorial comment and making a securities offering.
Or: “We can’t talk to you because of Reg FD,” the fair-disclosure rule that was supposed to stop public company chieftains from tipping off select securities analysts and institutions. In fact, Reg FD specifically encourages public companies to talk to major national publications and newswires that efficiently get information in front of investors’ eyeballs.
What these ploys all really amount to is: “No comment.” Except, as we all know, the “no comment” has gone the way of the dodo, as companies (rightly) perceive that the public may perceive the remark as tantamount to admitting a problem or guilt.
Yet these counsel-says-no-we-can’t-talk responses are still no comments. Smart journalists know this. They may forgive the communications professional, but they are still insulted by the company that trots out counsel with bastardized readings of the law to prevent communication. The journalist will act accordingly.
Should companies continue to pay the kinds of salaries that can cover law degrees to produce this potentially damaging boilerplate?