Who is Telling Your Story?

Well, the media, right?

Of course they are. When something blows up, they’re the ones that set up their cameras and turn their backs to the devastation for the sake of a backdrop. And after your response has got a hand on things, they’re the ones that come to the press briefing. They are, effectively, telling the story of your disaster.

Many of us worry about the spectacle created by the media, especially in the aftermath of a disaster. See the now famous example of Larimer County, Colorado Sheriff Justin Smith asking members of the media to not film houses burnt by the wildfire. Sometimes our concern is for the mental state of the victims, sometimes it’s to protect the members of the media (how many people have had a reporter walk into a danger zone?), and sometimes it’s because the situation is evolving and covering the process will give a false impression of the situation. In any case, there is a tension between responding agencies and media. They want more access than we feel is okay to give.

(And if you look at it from a selfish/strategic point of view, if we manage media access, we feel that we can control the story. That we can shape the story that the media tells.)

And when there’s a paucity of disaster-related news, we might even be able to control that story. (Though truthfully, I can’t see that ever happening again. Social media and citizen reporting will always ensure that the story is told even without our machinations.) But what about when there’s more disaster than reporters? Well, then it’s a buyer’s market. If your response won’t give access, then they’ll find a town that will.

Fine, you say, we can tell our own story now, at our pace.

Except that might not be such a good thing, as this article, titled No cameras, no national storm help?, tells. The story is about the tiny towns of Moscow, Ohio; Peach Grove, Kentucky; and Henryville, Indiana. Each was hit by tornadoes on March 2, 2012; Henryville the worst. The reporter tells the story of flying to Peach Grove right after the twister touched down, only to be rebuffed by responders, citing the safety of the reporters.

Let me guess, you never heard about the tornado that tore through Peach Grove, did you?

With no access to the scene in Peach Grove, there was no reason to stay. We could not get close enough to tell the human stories of survival and heroism. As a result, few people knew of the dozens of houses destroyed in that one rural neighborhood.

The reporter then went to Moscow, Ohio to cover another touchdown. Even with that, the big story was out of Henryville, where the devastation was greatest. Never heard about Moscow, either, did you? According to the reporter, the media wasn’t given access until several days later.

Who told their story? Did not telling their story affect how they recovered? Did it affect the funding that came their way?

And if you think I’m being a rabble-rouser here, consider what happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina:

The media got to the heart of New Orleans long before federal help arrived. But wherever we would point our cameras one day, the help would arrive the next. It was a powerful demonstration of the importance of the news media in times of disaster.

In particular I remember an interchange off I-10 in New Orleans where literally thousands had gathered waiting to be rescued. We showed the pictures of human suffering on the news in New York, and the network picked up the story to share it with the nation.

The next day the interchange was empty. Every single person had been bussed to shelters in Houston. A few days later, the NYPD showed up in Louisiana to help.

The most important part of your disaster might be the story. Be sure you’ve thought through all of the ramifications of not having it told before you stop the media.

Quickly Noted: Who Are Your Advocates?

There is a conversation that runs through most public relations campaigns, and those in public health and government aren’t immune to it. It’s this idea that if we just got someone famous to say our message, we could truly gain some traction. Many people in public health readily point to the work that Jenny McCarthy has done on vaccine denial as an example of that star power.

What many people in public relations are starting to notice is that star power is starting to wane. As our public becomes more savvy in information consumption–and more social in their information consumption–they’ve begun to de-value the recommendations of actors (not in the movie sense) who are paid. They are, instead, listening to their friends and family and trusted folks, and in turn, placing extra value on the recommendations they’ve gleaned from the trusted circle. Brand advocates is what the fancy PR folks call them. One of those fancy PR folks, Jay Baer, passes along this infographic detailing the difference between the two:

Rumor Monitoring and Correction on Social Media

Long-time readers will remember a piece I wrote about a tool the Guardian newspaper put together looking at rumors that were making the rounds on Twitter during the riots in London last summer. It was excellent, and very interesting, and bears asking you to go check it out again.

But if you didn’t, here’s the quick overview:

Farida Vis, the speaker in this video, is a lecturer who specializes in social media and crisis situations, and this video is her dissecting what happened on Twitter during those riots, step-by-step. Her conclusion, though, is what I wanted to draw your attention to. She says:

Social media is really effective itself at debunking these rumors.

She asks three things of people who would tweet during a crisis:

1. If you’re going to retweet, check what you’re retweeting.

2. If you’re going to send out information and you don’t know the provenance of the information, please say so. Just say that you don’t know, say it’s unconfirmed.

3. If you’re in the possession of valuable information to debunk rumors, add a link so that other people can cascade this information and debunk rumors.

Via Reddit: I am Cory Booker, Ask Me Anything

What if your Executive went into the middle of the town square and said, “Hey! I’m the (Mayor, Governor, President, CEO, Commissioner, etc.)! Ask me anything you want!”

Setting aside the fact that 99.999% of them would NEVER do that, what do you think would happen? Now imagine if your Executive went to the town square of the English language internet and said the same thing? You don’t have to ask what would happen because you can see it right here. Newark Mayor Cory Booker did just that this weekend. On the popular Reddit site (frequently called the “front page of the internet”), he opened the floor for questions and answered away. Huge, massive answers. Comprehensive descriptions of problems and proposed solutions, with links.

Yes, it’s a very technical, niche audience, but it’s one that has more and more frequently driven what is popular and deemed news-worthy on the internet. News organizations are mining this site for leads.

After you finishing laughing/hyperventilating at the thought of your Executive actually doing this, think about the good that could come from it. Imagine your Executive trying to raise awareness for something. More interestingly, imagine your public health or emergency Executive answering any and all comers about a disease outbreak or other ongoing emergency. Not depending on the press to issue cleaned up talking points, but actually, directly, specifically answering questions from the public. Sure they don’t know what Reddit is, and they don’t type that fast. But what if your comms team supported them. Found supporting links and fact sheets, crafted the angle of the response, mined the thread for questions that are pertinent and important, typed up your Executive’s responses?

I’m starting to think this doesn’t looks so world-stopping now…

Via View From the Bridge: Penn State’s Crisis is NOT a Crisis Communications Failure

Yesterday, the always excellent Bill Salvin published a great post on the Penn State fiasco. Instead of doing what most public information/crisis communications folks are doing (namely, analyzing the complete lack of good crisis communications principles at, really, any point in the crisis), he’s stepped back and approached it from the 10,000-foot level.

His point, and one that I’ve made in the past, is that NO amount of perfect crisis communications can fix a disaster. Granted, poor communications can doom a situation in which everything is going right, but if it’s a cluster-you-know-what, there is NOTHING your communications will do to fix the situation. It might delay the inevitable (as we saw in Penn State), but eventually everyone gets their comeuppance.

It’s not as if the communicators ever got close enough to make a recommendation about how to proceed. Senior people covered it up. You can’t blame the field-goal kicker for the loss if he never gets on the field to try and win the game.
I also believe that if the communicators did know about what was going on, they likely would have been unable to convince their leaders to do the right thing or have been complicit in the chosen course of action. I know that’s cynical, but they all drink the same water in Happy Valley.
Gerald Baron has talked in the past about communicators getting the old heave-ho because they were faced with a disastrous situation and not being able to clean up the un-clean-uppable. It’s a shame, and a sham. In situations like this, those at the top are the most guilty, and should be made to deal with it