This is a most heartening sign. I and a few others have complained vigorously about the media coverage of the spill. One thing I complained about was that there were no voices within the media to say, wait a minute, things aren’t quite what we are saying they are. That seems to be starting to change.
Here’s an outstanding commentary from Mike Thomas of the Orlando Sentinel, referencing a story in the New Yorker (of all places!). I haven’t read the whole story yet since I’m not a subscriber but I’m going to run out and get a copy as soon as I can.
Thomas sums up the situation with remarkably brevity: “Much of what you saw in the media was not reality. It was a scripted show.”
That is a remarkable assessment from a member of today’s journalism cohort. Thomas explains what he means by a “scripted show.”
I recall a spill scientist, frustrated by the sensational reporting, asking me why the media continue to “believe the loudest and most radical voice.”
This was my answer: “In stories like this, we follow a template. We seek villains and doomsday scenarios because they drive the storyline. And so everything BP does is driven by evil intent. Everything (the federal government) does is to cover up evil. We then create heroes to battle the evil. And as the information begins trickling in that contradicts the storyline, it doesn’t matter. The big tent has folded up and people have lost interest. So there is no accountability.”
Those of you who have read Now is Too Late2: Survival in an Era of Instant News, will recognize the good and evil reference–black hats and white hats. My theory has been that as news entered primetime (with 60 Minutes) it adopted the forms of entertainment that it has replaced. Specifically the dramatic form known as melodrama, with simplified story lines and audience-satisfying defeats of the bad guys. Why? Because this is what works today and the game is attract and hold an audience or go the way of (insert name of any of a thousand or ten thousand media outlets that have died recently).
Those of you who have been reading crisisblogger during the spill know how I feel about Billy Nungesser and Anderson Cooper’s infatuation with him. So I especially like this comment of Thomas:
But there was plenty of drama. CNN fell in love with Billy Nungesser, a colorful Louisiana parish president who lashed out in his Cajun accent at the feds. Oh, how the big-city media love this shtick.
So, with the New Yorker and the likes of Thomas from the Sentinel beginning to become more critical of the news coverage of the spill, I feel vindicated. But that is not the point. The most important point I have tried to make in the oil industry and executive briefings I have had the opportunity of doing in the past few months is to understand the nature of today’s media environment. This kind of analysis will help us understand it better.
Jack Fuller’s book “What is Happening to News” will help even more because he has the credibility of a major media editor (Chicago Tribune). Now, even our Secretary of State Hilary Clinton is bringing the sad state of our media to light–comparing it negatively to Al Jazeera.
For crisis communicators, understanding this environment is the beginning point of effective crisis communication strategy. If you are a big company, particularly one with already low trust ratings–like Big Oil–and something goes terribly wrong on your watch, you WILL have the black hat on. You will NOT get a fair shake. You are the TOOL by which the media will do their job of inflaming public opinion to secure ratings necessary for them to stay alive. So, what do you do about it?
The sad thing is that most crisis communication strategies rely on the tried and untrue method of pushing out press releases in the vain hope of getting their message out and getting fair coverage. That simply is not the game that is played. Yes, you must continue to deal with the media. And you must continue to work with them to try and get truth conveyed. But if you understand that their concern is not “reality” but the “scripted show” then you can deal realistically with how to communicate. And more and more that means identifying in advance those people most important to your future, establishing an on-going conversation with them in advance of anything bad happening, and then when it does happen, tell them the truth, the whole truth and nothing but. Your primarily role in dealing with the media in this view, is to monitor, then be quick with corrections and balancing information to bring some reality to their scripted show.