Was Irene Over-Hyped? If So, Whose Fault Was It?

Earlier his week, Gerald Baron (on the excellent Crisisblogger
blog) lamented the state of the media today. Yeah, I know, what’s new? Well,
I disagreed with him, which is pretty unusual. But, as usual, he raised a
very important point. Gerald’s post focused on how the media “cried wolf”
on the Hurricane Irene threat.

As this article from the Philadelphia Inquirer points out, Irene was a
deadly storm with 18 deaths and that the media plays a vital role in the
warning the public to take the dangers of a major storm very seriously. But
it also points out that “some cable anchors were still reporting that Irene
could strike New Jersey and New York as a major hurricane long after his
team determined that it clearly was weakening.”

That’s not just mistaken or poor reporting. That’s intentionally lying,
that is crying wolf. The author of the article, Will Bunch, also very
succinctly nailed the reasons behind this kind of media coverage: Ratings,
journalist careers, and political opportunism. (Anderson Cooper, it is
pointed out, was offered his primetime anchor spot after his spirited
coverage during Katrina.)

Having spent twelve hours in the Philly EOC and then not being able to sleep
afterwards because I was watching the destruction being wrought in western
New York, Connecticut and Vermont, I truly believe that the storm was
definitely not over-hyped.

That said, it raises an interesting point and leads me to another criticism
of the media (that I’ll deal with in another post).

Gerald explicitly asks about something that bedevils public health
communicators daily. Ghosts of 1976. Public health communicators have shied
away from making grandiose statements about threats ever since they warned
the public about the swine flu threat (until after Katrina, I believe). In
this week’s case, if we’re wrong and get people scared for something that
ultimately doesn’t happen, will they stop believing us? Are we
unintentionally crying wolf? Best intentions and all that.

I like to think there’s a way to avoid that fate, but I haven’t seen it
demonstrated to know if it works. It makes sense rattlin’ around in my
brain, but I’m anxious to see it in action. I call it the post-campaign era.
Once we get beyond communicating with our publics in a one-off
fashion—“Here’s what you need to know about the hurricane that’s coming
tomorrow”—and begin a longer conversation directly with them—“We’re
worried about this storm that’s a week out, and here’s why,” and then, “Now
that the hurricane has blown through and we’re okay, let us know how your
neighborhood fared, and also, the Red Cross needs blood donors.”

You’re supposed to say now, “That’s ridiculous, Jim. The media would never
carry those long messages over weeks at a time.” Exactly. We need to move
beyond the media, ESPECIALLY the national media (whose presence will be
measured in hours). Have a conversation directly with your public. Be
available to them all the time. Have the conversation saying we got lucky,
but others didn’t fare so well. Here’s what we can do next time to ensure
that if it is worse, we’ll be okay.

I agree with Gerald that if we continue with our one-off, campaign-based
strategy, people will see us as crying wolf. If the only time they hear from
us is right before a disaster that seemingly always fizzles, of course
they’ll stop believing us. But if we have that one-to-one, always on
conversation, maybe we won’t be seen as fear-mongers, but
partners.

2 thoughts on “Was Irene Over-Hyped? If So, Whose Fault Was It?

  1. hello Jim …I think both Gerald and you are right. The time has come to look beyond legacy media as primary emergency information tool. They are in a different business. We are all about preparedness and alerting .. they focus on entertainment.They stage shots/coverage where reporters become the story …trying to illustrate the impact of disasters while ignoring the true victims. That gets stale quickly …It’s time to use social media effectively. First as alerting tools and one-way channels. That works even when you’d want to send pretty harsh messaging.I remember so very strong warnings from official in relation to Hurricane Ike in the Gulf a few years back. Stuff like: …you will die if you don’t evacuate from your one-floor dwelling on the coast …” … You can easily sustain messaging in the long term by engaging in conversation on social networks and that’s where you’ll really get good ROI and built solid partnerships and relationships that will be useful for the next disaster.

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