Media Speculation Complicates Crisis Communications & Public Relations: Disturbing Media Trend #1

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By Gerard Braud

If your job is to communicate with the media in the form of crisis communications or pro-active public relations for a good-news event, your life and job will become more complicated because of disturbing news media trend #1.

Excessive speculation ranks as disturbing media trend #1. CNN has taken the sin of speculation to an all time high with their 24/7 speculation regarding the disappearance of Malaysia Flight 370.

The flight disappeared from radar on March 8, 2014 and has never been found as of the day of this writing. That didn’t stop CNN from calling upon every third party expert in the world to get their opinion on why the plane may have disappeared, where the plane may have disappeared, and why absolutely no trace of the aircraft has ever been found.

The speculation included junk floating in the water near China, junk floating in the water near Vietnam, and debris west of Australia.  There was also speculation that the aircraft was either commandeered by the pilot or hijacked and flown to a remote airstrip where the passengers might be alive and held hostage.

FOX news covers MalaysiaAs a former journalist, I’ll share with you that in newsroom lingo, when a spectacular news event happens, it is not uncommon for the news director to proclaim to all in the newsroom, “We want to ‘own’ this story people!”

CNN clearly set out to devote more time to this story than any of their competitors. But there is a big gamble when going all-in on such a story. If there is no reasonable conclusion within a reasonable amount of time, the news media outlet is trapped. CNN had to decide if they would taper off their coverage or continue to go all in with the 24/7 speculation game. Unfortunately for anyone who watches CNN, the network decided to for-go coverage on most anything else in the world, in favor of non-stop speculation.

As a journalist and as someone who has reported for CNN, this relentless speculation fell below any standards of journalism I was ever taught. It was so absurd that I reached the point of feeling embarrassed for the anchors and the network.

Often another news event will happen that gives the media an opportunity to gracefully exit their excessive coverage. For example, on March 29, 2014, when Los Angeles experienced a 4.1 earthquake, which killed no one and injured no one.

(As a side note, I FaceTimed with my daughter in New Zealand and watched her screen bounce with great frequency as she experienced an earthquake. We immediately went online to see where the quake was centered and watched continuous aftershocks, all of which exceeded the single 4.1 earthquake in LA.)

Rather than giving the story a simple mention commensurate with a minor quake, CNN launched into yet another round of speculation news coverage. This time the story centered on whether LA was going to experience a big quake, capable of causing mass destruction, injury and death.

Really CNN? You didn’t need a 4.1 quake to speculate on that. Heck, everyday you could speculate about a quake rocking California.

BREAKING NEWS CNNMeanwhile, days later, on April 2, 2014, a big quake really did hit, this time in Chile. This massive quake measured 8.2, it killed five, injured others and caused massive destruction of buildings and a tidal wave. Yet the Chilean quake barely stayed in the news cycle.

Furthermore, while CNN went all in on the Malaysian Airlines 370 story, sending their top anchors to report from Malaysia and Australia, they sent no anchors to cover the massive destruction and chaos in Chile.

The frightening aspect of CNN’s relentless speculation is that often what happens at the network level trickles down to the local TV stations. Television news consultants seldom have an original idea. Rather, they watch what some other television news outlet does and they simply copy it.

This trend toward speculation can have a serious impact on corporations, non-profit organizations, and government agencies that experience a crisis. It also has significant impact on the people in public relations who must communicate reactively in a crisis and those who must communicate pro-actively when trying to get media coverage for good news events they wish to promote.

On the reactive side of crisis communications and public relations, should your company, non-profit or government agency fall prey to a crisis, it may be harder than ever to manage and communicate about your crisis.

This disturbing trend of speculation means you will spend more time than ever before responding to and reacting to rumors. Not only must you constantly slap the media on the wrist, but, in the case of Malaysia Airlines 370, if you are the company featured in the news reports, you must intensify your communications to your customer and family member audiences. The media and their speculation inflame your stakeholder audiences, causing greater mental anguish and emotional hostility.

Conversely, if you are a public relations person trying to get positive coverage for a news event during a period of time when the media is in excessive speculation mode about another entities’, your chances of getting good news coverage dissipates. In fact, your chances are almost zero that you could get any sort of news coverage.

The bottom line is for those of you who are professional communicators, the world of communications has gotten a great deal darker and harder because of the disturbing trend of excessive speculation.

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