Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Boston Coverage Puts Spotlight on Struggle Between Emotional Aspects and Critical Thinking

As the hunt for the Boston bombing suspects took control of my television last week, I switched from one network to the next, captivated by every new development throughout Friday.

When I was paused on one particular channel, I found myself distracted by two distinct narratives coming from that network’s anchors.  One anchor tried repeatedly to cover the facts and details of the manhunt, supplementing this with bits of information that might help the viewer better know what information to expect in the coming hours. 

His partner, on the other hand, kept calling the viewer’s attention to the expressions of fear, anger, puzzlement or confusion on the faces of anyone who happened to be on screen.  Since the station kept running loops of video from the marathon day bombing, this anchor kept retracing the emotions and only emotions from the day of the bombing and interweaving it with the emotions of the moments at hand for Bostonians.

To exacerbate the reporting, the two anchors kept interrupting each other with these competing narratives.

Any old news hand knows the reason for this.  Viewer surveys have indicated some viewers - a growing number actually - watch TV for an emotional outlet, while others want information, the facts.

TV news producers encourage reporters to try to draw the emotion out of interviewees, and to try to put the emphasis in the report on the emotions involved, thus making the report somewhat more dramatic.

For those of us in PR, it is well understood that sooner or later in a TV interview, no matter what the subject matter, the reporter will ask the person being interviewed, “How do you feel?”  All too often, that’s the only line of questioning, and as a result, the facts get lost.

A newspaper reporter I know often says, “That’s why you’ll always have newspapers.  Sooner or later, people what to know what’s really going on.”

I’m not so sure.  In the days following the Boston bombing, I’ve continued to follow the media coverage from every angle, from the crime story perspective, to a business story, a local story for Bostonians, to a world and political affairs story.

The one constant is a battle between the emotional play and critical thinking.  And emotion seems to be winning.  To be sure, the killing of three at the marathon and a police officer a few days later, the traumatic injury to hundreds, all due to the actions of two terrorists is inherently dramatic.  But as facts start to come out, they seem to be forced through an emotional filter in the media that can easily distort the story.

As a consequence, in some corners, the killers are emerging as sympathetic figures, which can be hard to fathom when you consider what they did after considerable pre-meditation. 

I had a journalism professor who addressed the conflict between emotion and critical thinking among journalists this way.  To paraphrase:  If you set out to write a story based on your own emotional attachments, you stand a good chance of writing fiction.  But if you have courage and base your reporting on critical thinking, be careful for you may not like what you have to write but it will be true.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Some New Realities for Crisis Communicators in the Wake of Two Explosions

Two terrorist-planted bombs exploded during the Boston Marathon on Monday.  A fertilizer plant exploded in West, Texas on Wednesday.  People died.  People were injured.  The events were captured as they happened on smart phone cameras, portable video cameras, surveillance cameras and by live, professional media news-gatherers.

There wasn’t one second of delay between the time of these catastrophic events and when the media began to report.

We not only live in a 24/7 news cycle, but because of the ubiquitous nature of electronic recording devices, it seems access to raw information on breaking news events is the standard.

Against this backdrop, crisis communicators need to understand the following:

·         The media does not need to come to you for information in the earliest stages of a crisis. They have access to witnesses and witness video and photos and will go live with that content before they will verify or flesh out coverage with additional facts.
·         They will come to you to for details and will immediately expect additional information and verification, oftentimes using source material you or your organization hasn’t seen because it’s so fresh and could have been provided by witnesses.
·         Video of any crisis can and will find its way to YouTube almost as soon as the individual recording it can upload it.  Minutes.  Video of the fertilizer plant explosion was recorded by an individual and posted on YouTube before most of the country knew of the event.
·         The media will speculate and will make mistakes, sometimes big ones.  They will base their questions on their own speculation and the speculation of others.  They will get leaks from official law enforcement and other local, state or federal agencies.  They will come to you for confirmation. 
·         If first responders are involved, their organizations and other government leaders will likely take the lead on early phase communications.  Companies involved will likely be expected to cooperate, but if the event involves public safety which could be at risk, police fire and other like agencies will take the lead.
·         Hospitals and healthcare workers will serve as secondary sources of media information.  While some hospitals may be well trained at handling breaking news, some hospitals in rural areas may not be so prepared. 
·         In the first minutes of any major news event, particularly where public safety is at risk, politicians and others may give into the temptation to politicize the event. 

While most crisis situations involve a range of factors beyond our control, crisis communicators have never faced an environment where so much is beyond the control of our organizations, while at the same time, the expectation for immediate answers is equally strong.

This is a new age where in the media facts and accuracy have taken a back seat to dramatic images and video.  And the demands of the 24-hour news cycle, along with the pressure for media to draw viewers and readers is stronger than ever.

Sunday, April 14, 2013


If I had not majored in Journalism, I most likely would have chosen to study history in college, but as it turned out my interest in history has been more that of a “buff” over the years.  More to the point, I’m a history buff with a focus on the Civil War, World War II and the Cold War years.

For me, the latter part of the Cold War and everything that’s happened since started as current events, and so most of my knowledge of that history is from memory and the news coverage I’ve consumed over the years.

So if you were to ask me about the Spartan and Persian wars, I might give you a blank stare.  Or if you want me to tell you something I know about World War I, I may end up drawing from what I learned in reading “All Quiet on the Western Front.”

However, based on what I’ve seen over the years, I sense that my education on history and that of most in my generation was much more well-rounded and in-depth than what schools are serving up today.

That’s why it puzzles me when I see anyone explain away their lack of historical knowledge with such statements as, “That was before my time.” 

Of course it was, but the importance of understanding history is to know the lessons of history, and hopefully to make decisions today to avoid the mistakes of the past.

This is particularly true in public relations.  One of the most effective ways to develop good PR strategy going forward is to have an understanding of the past.

For instance, anyone in crisis communications should have studied the Tylenol recall from 1982.  That was when Tylenol, the leading over-the-counter, pain-killer medicine in the U.S., was at the center of a situation where seven people in Chicago had died, apparently after taking Tylenol Extra Strength capsules.  Someone had tampered with the product, inserting cyanide into the capsules, causing the deaths.   What investigators learned was that the tampering happened after the product had reached store shelves.

The company’s response was unprecedented.  The CEO decided to remove all Tylenol Extra Strength capsules from all stores across the country until the root of the problem could be identified and addressed.  This was at major financial cost to Johnson & Johnson, Tylenol’s maker, but the precautionary measures in the end saved the company’s reputation and the company itself.

While there are many lessons to be learned from this situation, the main one was that it's not possible to over-react when public health and safety is at stake and the threat is imminent.  Ever since, this understanding has guided crisis communications thinking.

Societally, the lessons of history are more broad.  We learned from the Industrial Age that communities can’t fully benefit from economic and industrial growth if the environment suffers as a consequence.  Since then regulations, best practices and common procedures have been established to ensure that industry can survive and thrive while protecting the environment. 

The PR tie-in comes when those of us in PR work to help organizations communicate on issues related to sustainability and Corporate Social Responsibility.

For anyone who gets their news from sources beyond People magazine and the TMZ network, much of what I just covered is self-explanatory.

But thanks to a substandard emphasis on history in the schools and the ability through technology to self-select almost all media we consume, there is an alarmingly growing number of insulated people who just haven't been exposed to the most basic history lessons.  Because of this, they can't relate or appreciate the value such knowledge brings.


Here’s a bizarre example.

Justin Bieber, the teenage pop star who really needs no introduction, recently visited the Anne Frank  House in Amsterdam. 

Young Anne Frank became famous for penning a diary during her time in hiding in Holland from the Nazis during World War II.  Her family had to live in hiding because they were Jewish.  Her diary’s entries are touching in how they captured the innocence of youth, while detailing what life was like in constant fear of Hitler’s Third Reich.  As history has documented, Anne Frank died of typhus in the concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen near the end of the war.

The seriousness of Anne Frank’s story apparently was lost on Bieber, who toured the museum, and presumably learned something of Anne Frank, but then wrote this in the guest book at the house:

“Truly inspiring to be able to come here. Anne was a great girl. Hopefully she would have been a belieber.” 

Apparently, “beliebers” are his fans.

Justin Bieber is 19, and on his path to fame and fortune, one thing he didn’t have access to was a good and comprehensive education.  But what can be disconcerting about this incident is that many of his fans may be about as appreciative of the lessons of history as their idol. 

But equally important is that the pop star’s handlers who should know better, didn’t interject when Justin wrote in the guest book to make sure that whatever he wrote was in the spirit of the place and the moment.

Opportunity lost.

It’s in the best interest of any PR professional to have a solid knowledge of history, because you never know when it might be important. And everything we do in PR requires context.  Something as simple as taking a tour of a historical site with a celebrity can serve to reinforce the lessons of history, or as in Justin Bieber’s case, expose an embarrassing level of ignorance.  That’s something any PR person should try to avoid.

If you're curous, here's a link to the Anne Frank House's Web Site.  Very interesting.