Why do press releases get pulled?
We ran a story called Dropping The Ball in late March, after discovering that a delay in the implementation of a new SAP payroll accounting system could cost the city an extra $3m, in the midst of an $8m general fund budget crisis. The problem developed in the Office of Management and Finance (OMF), which is overseen by Mayor Sam Adams. Adams declined comment on the $3m overrun, personally, so we spoke with the mayor's chief of staff, Tom Miller:
Was the mayor's office distracted from focusing on the project over the last three months?
"Absolutely not," says Adams' chief of staff, Tom Miller. "We support the work that our bureau has done and we're working diligently to ensure the SAP system goes live as soon as we can be sure it will meet our expectations."
We first broke the story on Blogtown on Monday, March 23, at 11:43am. But over the following days I started to wonder: Did the mayor's office think it might be worth communicating the $3m overrun to the public? Had there been a press release, coming, at some point? I emailed Adams' spokesman, Roy Kauffman, and Laurel Butman from (OMF) to ask. Initially, Butman replied:
Thanks for the inquiry. We had drafted a press release and were ready to send it out about the time you first contacted us. Our policy is, wherever possible, to inform employees before sending out such any release that is about an internal and citywide project of this magnitude. That employee communication had not yet gone out when you broke the story.
When I asked to see the press release, I got an email from Kauffman:
While I want to extend to you kudos on getting the story first, I also have to break the news to you that the press release will be going out later this week, as OMF and the mayor's office discussed.
Trouble is, that press release never appeared. So I lodged a public records request with the mayor's office asking for all emails back and forth relating to the timing of a press release on the $3m overrun of the city's new payroll system. And I got this set of emails back, yesterday, which you can download as a pdf, if you're interested.
It turns out that OMF wanted to put out a press release explaining the overruns the same morning we ran the story. "Since we have had one media inquiry already about status of SAP implementation, I would like to go ahead and send out a press release today," wrote Butman, in an email to the mayor's office and the SAP folks.
SAP media relations boss Andy Kendzie wrote back promptly at 11:21am, saying he was "fine with this." Indeed, Kendzie had already been in touch with Butman on March 12, to give feedback on the press release. "I might suggest that in the fourth bullet point on talking points you might want to change "postpone the scheduled readiness...." to something like "begin a phased implementation approach..... bureau by bureau" or something similar," he wrote. But that's all.
Before Butman could sent out the press release—planned for 1:30 pm—we ran the story on Blogtown. 45 minutes later, at 12:25pm, Kauffman wrote back from the mayor's office: "I think a press release is the wrong way to handle this," he wrote. "Let's discuss."
Having read that email exchange this afternoon I was unsure why Kauffman had earlier told me that the mayor's office and OMF had planned to send out the press release later that week, when the emails show OMF was pushing to send it out on the same day we ran the story. And I still didn't understand why there was never a press release. So I called Kauffman to find out.
"It was a significant issue, and we had planned on sending the release out," says Kauffman. "But pretty much in the next couple of days we got a request from KOIN TV, we got a request from the Tribune and a couple of other outlets to do stories on it. So it made sense to me that the point of doing a press release was a moot point at that point. We continue to get follow up calls on the story and I think KATU is planning to do a story on it next week."
"There was an intrepid young reporter named Matt Davis who works for the Mercury who got to the story and wrote the story right as we were getting ready to send out the release," he says. "The point of the release was to send out the news and then be able to be available and respond to questions."
"Since the story broke on the Mercury's website we had a number of inquiries from print and TV and we have done a number of stories since the Mercury first covered it," Kauffman continues. "It's a story with a fairly complicated history, and so I felt that it would be better and more productive to have those conversations more directly with reporters than to try to cram all of those details into a single release," he says.
"My point is that the Mercury is visible enough and widely-read enough that people will watch the coverage, and so one publication that's a mainstream, highly visible publication breaking the story is enough to generate interest in it," Kauffman continues.
Which, I think, answers all my questions about why, in this particular instance, the press release got pulled.