The announcement of HBO’s new show, “Confederate,” which takes place in an alternate timeline where Southern states successfully seceded from the union and slavery remains legal, was already bound to draw criticism. It’s pretty much the definition of a touchy topic. The way the show was announced, however, created even more problems.
The press release has been a staple of public relations for pretty much as long as the industry has existed. It’s the go-to for new announcements for many organizations, and is effective when used in the right way and for a suitable purpose. As HBO found when there was a near-immediate backlash following its own press release (and attached show trailer), sometimes you need to provide a lot more context than a release can contain.
During a press tour following the announcement, HBO President of Programming Casey Bloys explained to reporters why he felt a press release was a mistake:
I would file this under hindsight is 20-20. If I could do it over again, our mistake, HBO’s mistake, the idea that we would be able to announce an idea that is so sensitive and requires such care and thought on the part of the producers in a press release was misguided on our part. If I had it to do over again, what we ended up doing after the fact with the four producers, [was to] have them sit with journalists. Richard [Plepler, HBO Chairman] and I had the benefit of sitting with these four producers. We heard why they wanted to do the show, why it was important to them so we had that context. I completely understand somebody reading the press release would not have that at all. If I had it to do again, I would’ve rolled it out with producers talking on the record so people understand where they’re coming from.
A press release is great if you can sum up the Who, What, When, Where and Why in a one-pager. The major reason it didn’t work for HBO here – and why we don’t recommend press releases in many crisis management scenarios – is that the Why can require a significant amount of explanation on its own, and is often delivered most effectively in an arena where the audience can explore the topic in a back-and-forth conversation rather than being left to interpret what they may from a sheet of text. Press releases are powerful tools, but as with any tool they need to be used when they suit the situation, not as the automatic go-to approach.