In A Disaster You Are Going To Face The Media – Are You Prepared?

This past weekend the country, and especially residents of the east coast, braced themselves for the impact of Hurricane Irene.  This would be Mother Nature’s second punch following the 5.8 magnitude earthquake that shook the Washington D.C. area earlier in the week. Prior to hitting the United States, Irene was a Category 3 hurricane.  However, by the time Irene reached the United States, she was downgraded to a Category 1.

As I watched the national “Special Edition of Today” show  coverage of the hurricane on Sunday morning, I was reminded how impactful the media can be in its coverage of a disaster whether it be national or local.  Monday morning, following the storm, Matt Lauer and crew were back at it talking about response and recovery topics (preparedness kits, cleaning up after the flood, and dealing with insurance).

There are always two sides to the fence.  Many feel that the media response to Irene was too much.  As was stated in a recent Christian Science Monitor article “Hurricane Irene never reached above a Category 3 hurricane as it moved up the eastern seaboard. But media coverage of the storm easily reached Category 5 proportions.”  Perhaps that’s because this storm was in the media’s own backyard – New York City.  The article went on to quote former Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Joe Allbaugh.  As a result of the wall-to-wall coverage and predictions with Irene, Allbaugh noted, next time large numbers of people are called upon to evacuate or respond to official directions, “they will remember this time and decide for themselves that the predictions are overdone.”

Others saw benefit.  To media critic Tom Cooper, weather emergencies are one topic where media excesses are acceptable, even welcome.  Despite all the negative commentary thrown at the media, what journalists often do best is SAVE LIVES.”  “When lives are at stake, and indeed lives were lost in the path of Irene, we need to thank media of all types – social media, network journalism, online, and printed journalism – for preventing fatalities, injuries, and damage of many kinds,” he says. Whatever errors media make in reporting weather, he adds, the alternative to “over-reporting,” would be “under-reporting,” and “it is inhumane and irresponsible.”

I’ll leave it up to you to decide if Hurricane Irene coverage was too much.  But, like it or not we must accept the fact that when there’s an emergency or disaster there’s a better than average chance that the “media” is going to be there – in your community or maybe at your business.

When we use the term “media”, who is it we are talking about?  Long ago, it was just the newspapers.  In more recent times it grew to include radio (remember the fictitious news report from “The War Of The Worlds”) and then television.  Today, we need to add social media including Twitter and Facebook to the mix.  Huh???  Twitter, Facebook, YouTube??? Really ???  You bet!  People are going to use these dynamic tools to report information to others, including the established news media.

As was reported in a recent survey by the American Red Cross titled “How Americans Use Social Tools in Emergencies”, the internet is the third most popular way, followed by television and local radio, for people to gather emergency information with 18 percent of both the general and the online population specifically using Facebook for that purpose.  So, you have to be PREPARED.  The following are ideas on how you can get there.

Develop a media-positive attitude.

Reporters (print, radio, and TV) have a job to do. While they will not promise to write only positive stories about your company, you can make their job easier and make your relationship with them more positive by working with them, cooperating with them, helping them get the information they need.

The media is not going away. It is a powerful force that constantly shapes public opinion. But powerful forces become less dangerous when we learn to deal with them. Respect the media. Embrace it. Seek it out.  Make it your most powerful ally.

Develop a positive working relationship with the media.

Remember that relationships are key.  A good relationship with the media will be a huge advantage for you.  Accurate reporting will keep your public informed.  Bear in mind that even if you have a great relationship with the media, coverage will simply reflect what’s going on with your business or community: the good and the bad. The best you can hope for is accurate, fair coverage rather than distorted facts.  Working with the media is not much different than working with your other stakeholders. You have to network, establish relationships and build trust. The problem is that many of us fear the media; we are afraid to reach out to them. We are afraid that everything we say will be taped or misquoted or quoted verbatim.

Learn how to deal with the media.

Once you have made the decision to work WITH the media, the next step is to get trained in working with the media.  Yes, there is a right way and a wrong way.  Rather than get an education from the school of hard knocks, take a class taught by qualified instructors.

Not all of us are born great orators and communicators. Yet, the ability to communicate clearly and effectively is a must especially in an emergency or disaster.  If you need help in this area, get it. This is a significant part of your professional growth and a key survival skill.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) offers two terrific classes on the issue of dealing with the media.

The Basic Public Information Officers (PIO) Course is aimed at the new or less experienced PIO including those individuals who have function as a secondary responsibility.  Course topics include an overview of the job of the PIO, understanding the media, interview techniques, writing a news release and conducting public awareness campaigns. This course is conducted locally by State Emergency Management Agencies.  If you are interested, you should contact your State Emergency Management Agency to find out when and where the course will be offered.

The Advanced Public Information Officers Course (APIO) is conducted at FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute in Emmitsburg, MD.   The intent of the Advanced Public Information Officers Course (APIO) is application of public information skills to a major emergency or disaster situation. This is accomplished with a series of lecture presentations and exercises over the four days of the course.

With respect to Social Media

As was pointed out in a Forbes article titled “A Corporate Guide For Social Media”  Social media, the new network economy, is about communities, collaboration, peer production and user-generated content.  It is a place where business reputations are defined by customer opinions and ratings, where press is delivered by independent bloggers, and product development and insight is driven by customers.  Your employees expect to be part of the social Web and they have a lot to contribute.  Does this sound like business as usual?  It shouldn’t.  Social technologies turn many corporate policies upside down.

If you are an executive, keep in mind two points as you gear up your social media strategy: First, social technologies including blogs, social networks, Twitter, and Yahoo are communication tools. That means your social media approach must integrate with your existing communications channels and goals. Second, if you think these guidelines don’t apply to you, you are probably already on the endangered species list.

When all else fails

But what happens if after reading this you have an emergency tomorrow, and aren’t able to PREPARE – network or attend training?  Well, the following is a list of 10 essentials I found written by Thomas Murrell  that I think are pretty much on track.

  1. Plan for a crisis in advance.
  2. Clarify your communication objectives.
  3. Determine who spokesperson is and road test their skills prior to a crisis.
  4. Identify the best channels of communication.
  5. Determine what your key message is?
  6. Stick to the facts. Show empathy with those affected.
  7. Develop an open and honest relationship with the media, avoid “No Comment” and be proactive.
  8. Build your case.
  9. Use the Three Golden Rules (Know your Topic, Be Prepared, Relax) to perform at your best.
  10. Seek professional help.

TIP:  Recent weather events such as Hurricane Irene, the earthquake on the East Coast and other natural disasters highlight the need for Americans to prepare for emergencies.  The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the American Red Cross, the Ad Council and Google Crisis Response are collaborating to launch a new preparedness web resource, Get Tech Ready, on behalf of the Ready campaign.  This new resource educates individuals and families about how using modern-day technology can help them prepare, adapt and recover from disruptions brought on by emergencies or disasters.


One Response to In A Disaster You Are Going To Face The Media – Are You Prepared?

  1. Wendy says:

    This is Wendy Harman from the American Red Cross. Thanks for mentioning our social data survey.

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