Phone lines and conference calls–from FEMA to Enbridge

November 29, 2007

I am more and more convinced that the time of press conferences is over. Either that, or communicators have to get a lot better about the technology.

Here’s a blog post about the crude pipeline disaster currently in the news regarding Enbridge (full disclosure, Enbridge is a client) titled “Worst. Conference Call. Ever.”

The problem: phone lines. Anyone who has tried to run a large scale telephone conference or a web meeting that includes a number of phone participants knows the challenges. Noise on the line, some dumbo goes for a bio break and puts their phone on hold which goes to music that every has to listen to. A siren goes by. Somebody starts talking to someone else in the room and he’s on speaker. So you hit the mute button–now people talk and don’t know they are on mute. Or you hit mute all and your conversation suddenly feels like you are talking to an blank wall in an empty building.

Enbridge staff clearly was having a problem managing the phone technology for a massive teleconference call. Unfortunately, as the snotty blog points out, the reputation damage acrues to the company who was trying to communicate with almost everyone at once rather than the phone company for not solving an all too common problem.

Regarding FEMA, I recently learned from a source very close to the supposed “fake news conference” event that it was the reporters themselves who requested that the phone lines not allow for questions. Yes, that is true folks. The very reporters who later reported that they were not allowed to ask questions requested that the phone lines be on mute. Why? Because they had had previous experiences with phone conferences like Enbridges. Talk about being damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

What is the answer? I think there are several.

1) get up to speed on the best ways of handling the phone technology. Test it, practice it, drill it.

2) Make clear what your approach is going to be re muting and explain the reasons, or give the participants the opportunity to weigh on the best approach.

3) Don’t rely on press conferences as a key element of getting info out. Frankly, for the most part they suck and are an artifact of a MSM-dominated era. That day is long past–although most in PR continue to forget that. What stakeholders, the public and all reporters/bloggers need is a steady stream of information in a variety of formats–fact sheets, situation updates, photos, videos, links to other reliable sources, etc. It should come not in spurts tagged to some long gone newscycle, but fed continually through a special website and delivered in multiple modes to all audiences with a high degree of interest.

This is what FEMA should have done instead of a hastily called and poorly organized press briefing. It is was the world now expects of Enbridge. Let’s hope they can deliver.

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