The Media Are Listening in a Crisis

(Writer’s note: Every day in March we’ll have a fresh, free, new article on this topic. If you’d like to dig deeper, you may wish to purchase a recording of the teleseminar called Social Media & Crisis Communications. Here is your purchase link.)

By Gerard Braud

Among those listening IMG_0470* copyand fostering social media are the mainstream media. CNN’s i-
Report format is perhaps the most dominant among mainstream media, but other media outlets have their own channels for sharing photos and videos. The same is true for local media.

Because I am a regular contributor to i-Reports during weather events and natural disasters, CNN has turned to me on numerous occasions to provide live, on the air interviews. This is something each of you should be prepared to do should you experience a crisis where you work.

I first discovered the power of i-Report during an unusual snowstorm in New Orleans in December 2008. I posted a 15 second i-Report, which CNN pulled off of the web and aired going into their weather reports. It was shot with a point and shoot digital camera, then uploaded via my laptop. I was able to be on location in the snow where no reporters were and I was able to shoot and upload the video faster than any news crew could. Before any assignments editor could think about sending out a news crew, I had already done the job of the assignments editor, the reporter, the producer, the photographer and the editor. Furthermore, it cost the network nothing to have a timely news report.

CNN liked my video so much that they asked me to do a live report via my laptop web camera. Unfortunately, the live report was cancelled at the last minute because a bigger story broke on the national scene. Minutes before airtime, the body of Caylee Anthony was discovered in Florida, after months of speculation that the child had been killed by her mother, Casey Anthony. But just the same, technology placed me where they had no news crews.  The media’s own social network allowed me to speak and the media listened.

Since then, my i-Reports to CNN in Tropical Storm Lee in August 2011 and Hurricane Isaac in August 2012, resulted in the networkCNN iReport Lee Web asking me to be their correspondent, providing live reports for several days. I’ll explain the technical side of how you can do this in a future article.

In the case of the Haiti earthquake in 2010 and the Japanese tsunami in 2011, CNN i-Reports allowed CNN have to have reports in the early hours of these crises. However, as the infrastructure of electricity and communications weakened and collapsed, social media tools became less effective for CNN.

There are two events that I consider as game changers in the world of social media, and especially how it brought out of reach crises to the mainstream media.

One is the January 15, 2009 miracle on the Hudson, in which US Airlines flight 1549 made an emergency landing in the Hudson River. What makes this a game changer is that New York is the undisputed media capitol of the world. No single city in the world has a larger collection of global media correspondents. Yet the first official picture used by the media was a Twitter picture taken with an i-Phone by a man who was on a ferry. He tweeted that the ferry was going to rescue survivors and he included a photo. He was there, where no other reporter could be. Additionally, he knew more about the crash than anyone at US Airways corporate headquarters. So, in this case, the company could use Twitter as a way to listen and get updates. It required the airline to proceed with caution as it attempted to verify facts. We must all be careful not to fall victim to a possible hoax or a Photoshopped image.

To verify what the airline saw on Twitter, should the airline start tweeting back? As we’ll discuss a little later, that depends on many other variables.

The second game changer was on April 16, 2007, when a gunman went on a shooting spree at Virginia Tech. That day is filled with more crisis communications lessons than we have time to cover in this series of articles. These are lessons I am happy to discuss with you in depth in another forum.  On the day of the shooting, a student with a cell phone innocently stepped outside of a building and came upon police trying to storm a building where the gunman was killing 30 people. The student was so close that you could hear 26 gunshots in his video, which he immediately uploaded as an i-Report to CNN. The student took the global media and their global audiences into a place where no media should have been and where no media could go.

I think we can use these game changers as a launching point to emphasize the need for speed in crisis communications. Among the lessons that we should touch on here is that, had the university had a properly written crisis communications plan, it would have dictated communications within the first hour of the crisis. All of this was covered in a previous article. Add to your to-do list that in your crisis communications plan, it clearly needs to state that your organization will begin communicating with the outside world within one hour or less of any crisis going public.

Most crisis communications plans have no mandates at all. Most crisis communications plans, like the Virginia Tech plan on that day, are fatally flawed because they state standard operating procedures, but contain no mandates or timelines for implementing those standard operating procedures.

In this case, the first shooting happened at 7:15 a.m. and the first communications should have begun no later than 8:15 a.m. Proper communications would have likely cancelled classes and locked down the campus, in which case, the student with the cell phone would never have had the opportunity to stumble across this news event and become an i-reporter. More importantly, communications within one hour would have kept most, if not all, students from entering the campus, which would have prevented the deaths of 30 people.

For the record, the first communications from Virginia Tech came out at 9:25 a.m., which was 10 minutes after the second shooting began. Here you clearly see several compelling reasons why there is a need for speed and why you must always begin communicating within the first hour of the onset of the crisis.

This Virginia Tech cell phone video is further a game changer because the university was so oblivious as to what was happening. They waited a full five hours after the crisis began before sending forth a human to make a public statement. A human should have been making a statement within the first hour. Instead, the world was clamoring about the shooting and the story was being told from everyone’s perspective except the university’s.

For timeline purposes, let us note that Facebook was functioning at that time as primarily a tool exclusive to college students, so the outside world was limited on how much they could look in. Also at this time, Twitter was about to be launched and didn’t play a role in this crisis.

Without getting side tracked on the sins of Virginia Tech, the bottom line is the media monitor social media for breaking news, and in the case of CNN, they have a team of people who are constantly reviewing and vetting i-Reports. If you are not ready to use these tools to control the flow of information about your crisis, expect that eyewitnesses with smart phones will control more of the story than you will.

Tomorrow, I’ll teach you about the tools I use to file my live reports, even when I have no electricity in a hurricane.


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