The shelf life of information.

Think a piece of bad news goes away? Not anymore.

One of the classic strategies in public relations is that if your organization receives an unflattering news report, the worst thing you could do is keep talking about it, because that merely extends the period where people are interested in the story. While this is still true, there’s now a caveat: Even if you try to ignore it, the story’s not going away completely.

Information that used to be used for only a day or so by traditional media is now stored in servers all over the world. And instead of your having to spend tedious hours reading back issues of publications, wrestling with microfilm, or trying to find something in a film archive, this information now comes directly to your computer with a simple search.

And that means that anything you’ve ever published (or has been published about you) may always be there for someone to find.

Consider what’s happened with the simmering controversy about the age of the Chinese gymnasts at the Olympics in the last week. Though China met IOC requirements by presenting passports for each of its athletes indicating that they were all over the age of 16, they forgot about a story on its own national news service that said one of the girls was actually 13. (The story disappeared off the service soon after, but AP and other sources had already saved it to their files, ensuring that the topic will be discussed for probably weeks to come.)

If you’ve forgotten what your website looked like 10 years ago, you can be reminded by either rummaging through a bunch of old CD-Rs in your back storage room (which may or may not still work) or by visiting and entering your web address in the “Wayback Machine” at the top of the page, which will then show you archived pages from your site.

So you have to consider your history of communications as you develop new messages.

How much of an issue is this? In Fifteen Minutes of Fame: The Dynamics of Information Access on the Web, a group of Hungarian scholars looked at the readership patterns of more than 250,000 visitors to news websites. What they discovered is that while the majority of activity for a news report occurs within the first two days, there is a ongoing, steady stream of readership for a long time thereafter.

Mathematical modeling indicated that 28% of readership for a news item occurs during the first day, then drops off to 7% on day two. But after that, the readership remains small but pretty much constant after day four, as the report is incorporated into search. The report remains readily accessible should anyone spend even a few minutes looking for it.

For communicators, that’s a double-edge sword. You have to continually be on guard for someone retrieving an unflattering report about your organization and fanning the flames of an old issue. This may not happen often, but when it does, it usually means you’re dealing with someone who has an issue or agenda and who isn’t going to let the story go away (ask the Chinese).

Or—it can also mean that good news about you can be sustained much longer. Since search is driving the ongoing activity at news sites, it’s also keeping an ongoing stream of traffic to positive reports.

What should you be doing to manage the fact that pretty much all information published about your organization is readily accessible? Here are a few things:

  • Review and update your website regularly. It’s surprising how old information can linger, especially specifications or product claims. And even if you’ve disabled a page on your website but not purged it from your server, it can still be accessible by search. We know of several companies who’ve had to deal with big headaches because customers grabbed wrong information from their websites.

  • Promote good news about your organization by providing links to news sources, reviewers, and others that offer it.

  • If you routinely distribute news releases, make sure you have a press center. Some stories that aren’t picked up the first time may still be used by reporters working on features or needing background later.

  • Don’t forget anything you’ve said. Nobody else is going to.

  • And think about what you're going to say. Because it will stick with you for a long time.