19 April 2011

What, no Pulitzer? - the evolution of crisis communications

Yesterday the Pulitzer Prizes were awarded, and several people noted that for the first time no award was given in the category of "Breaking News Reporting" in a year filled with major disasters.  The reason given by the selection committee - the entries weren't impressive enough - strikes me as missing the mark.  Sad as it sounds, 2010 was a banner year for crises and crisis communications.  However, this development prompts us to examine how "breaking news" is compiled, processed and shared today.

First, we all know that financial pressures facing media companies have rocked journalism.  Corporate news organizations have cannibalized their news reporting functions for several years now.  Our largest media outlets are closing entire bureaus.  Daily papers and TV stations in mid-sized cities are lucky to have even a handful of news reporters working full-time. Independent reporting in radio (other than public radio) is virtually gone.  As seasoned (and therefore expensive) reporters leave, institutional memory goes with them.  So when a crisis hits, editors throw any and all resources they have at the story - and a huge chunk of the resources left are in the sports department.  So the 25-year old kid who has 2 years of experience quoting cliches from the local basketball coach is suddenly the "man on the scene" and the local weatherman is tabbed as the source of "expert commentary."   Local journalists have had no time to get badly needed background and context and they're immediately playing catch-up.  Product quality definitely suffers.

Second, social media tools have turned us all into breaking news reporters.  Individuals using Twitter broke the stories of Captain Sully's amazing landing in the Hudson, the gunman at the Discovery Channel building, the terror attacks in Mumbai, and even a fire in the Old Executive Office Building.   These tools have given people the ability to "fact check" reports (like the protests in the Middle East) and crowdsource information so you can get an amazingly accurate and fast picture of events - if you know who to follow.  However, I'm not completely comfortable getting my news from "some guy on Twitter."  The core process of journalism is easily lost here.

So if you're an organization in the middle of a crisis, you can't depend on news organizations to bring ample, experienced resources to bear and you can't depend on "some guy on Twitter" to get all the facts, what do you do? I say prepare for your crisis now.   Build up more sophisticated monitoring systems that incorporate social media tools.  Understand how information travels today - for example pay attention to the large and growing network of journalists on Twitter, and create lists of beat and trade reporters and other influentials.   Most importantly - build relationships with those influential people now.  Their learning curve isn't as steep because they already know you and your organization if and when a crisis hits.  They will also be more likely to seek out your opinion or give you the benefit of the doubt.  You're never going to get everything 100 percent right in a crisis, but these steps give you a fighting chance.

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