Tag Archives: Anderson Cooper

Category 5 coverage for a Category 1 storm–crying wolf is dangerous

The media coverage of Irene is a classic example of crying wolf. For those not familiar with the Aesop fable, a shepherd boy out in the field with the sheep cried “wolf!” to the villagers because he thought it was fun to see them come running to protect the flock. But he discovered that after a few times of false alarms they ignored the warning. So when the wolf did come, it feasted on the sheep because of the shepherd boy’s stupidity.

Crying wolf is dangerous. But it is almost inevitable when the media has demonstrated that there is no higher requirement than getting ratings. Over ten years ago a reporter from the largest regional TV station in our area told me that it was an embarrassment to him as a reporter to see how storms were covered. They’d send the reporter out to the windiest spot they could find, like a bridge with flags flapping in the background, they’d put a bright yellow rain coat on the reporter, have him bend against the wind and talk about the big storm. He told me there were ratings meters in the station manager’s office and they could see the ratings jump with the public fears about the big storm.

As this article from the Philadelphia Inquirer points out, Irene was a deadly storm with 18 deaths and that the media plays a vital role in the warning the public to take the dangers of a major storm very seriously. But it also points out that “some cable anchors were still reporting that Irene could strike New Jersey and New York as a major hurricane long after his team determined that it clearly was weakening.”

That’s not just mistaken or poor reporting. That’s intentionally lying, that is crying wolf. The author of the article, Will Bunch, also very succinctly nailed the reasons behind this kind of media coverage: Ratings, journalist careers, and political opportunism. (Anderson Cooper, it is pointed out, was offered his primetime anchor spot after his spirited coverage during Katrina.)

What bothers me is the same forces are at work in coverage of crises and human-caused events such as oil spills. That trifold motivation–ratings, careers and political grandstanding–play into overheated media coverage of events, particularly when human error or negligence plays a role vs. acts of God or nature such as Irene. Of course it is in the media’s interest to create the impression that every inch of beach is covered in oil, that complicated series of decisions were caused by greed or incompetence, that the fancy software in your car can cause it to¬† behave like the computer in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” It’s in the politician’s interest to feed on the fear and outrage created by this kind of coverage to be the white knight and propose legislative or regulatory solutions to the problem.

Sometimes, I sort of feel like I am crying wolf in continually harping about the problems with news coverage today. Many seem to think that it is quite normal, to be expected and really not so bad. There are outstanding examples of tremendous journalism. But, is there any doubt that the overwhelming inclination of major media outlets in today’s hyper-competitive environment is to put ratings above responsibility? Survival is at stake. The problem is that as the coverage of Irene makes clear, lives are also at stake. The article above points out, what happens when a Category 5 storm hits and people don’t respond because every Category 1 storm before that has had Category 5 coverage? They won’t evacuation, they won’t prepare, they won’t respond. We know that perfectly good reputations and careers have been destroyed by this kind of ratings-first coverage. We may soon find that more than careers have been lost.

Talk to the media, or not?–O'Donnell battles national media

Christine O’Donnell, the Tea Party candidate for VP Biden’s Delaware senate seat, has been the latest national media sensation, or victim, depending on your point of view. Ironically, on a national “news” show, Hannity’s America, she announced she would no longer give the national media any time.

I got some enjoyment watching Anderson Cooper and Gary Tuchman huff and puff about this–with Tuchman saying that this was like Cuba or Iran, or some other oppressive regime that was trying to control the press. Couldn’t really believe he was saying that. She is not the government, she’s a candidate. It is still her option whether or not to talk to the press. But clearly any candidate saying they will not deal with the national media is like waving a red flag in front of a bull.

My question is this: at what point does a company under the kind of infotainment attack we have seen repeated so often in the last while just decide they will not talk to the press? That sounds like a really dumb question to most PR folks and crisis managers who continue to think that reputation management is about media relations. Increasingly it is not.

Here are a few reasons why it is not:

– Some use social media instead of mainstream media for announcements–evidence: Amazon’s announcement about acquisition of Zappos.

– with 300 million citizen journalists running around with all the electronic news gathering equipment they need in their pockets, plus the ability to almost instantly create a “channel” that can rival a major network, who is the media anyway?

– isn’t your focus really those people whose opinion about you matters the most for your future? If so, your interest in the media is only insofar as it is impacts or influences those people. And if you can go direct to them and tell them your story straight, why the heck would you trust that important job to someone whose interest is not your reputation but only in building an audience even if it means using your reputation as a tool?

– reputation management is about taking the right actions, doing the right things, aligning your behavior with the values and expectations of those people who matter the most. Communication is the vehicle that both helps build organizational understanding of those expectations and values and the means by which the right actions are conveyed. What does the media have to do with this all important process? In many, if not most cases, they are a hindrance to it. Recognize it, plan for it, and take action to deal with it.

The huffing and puffing of Cooper and Tuchman notwithstanding, O’Donnell has to ask the question of whether dealing with the national media will help her get elected or not. Personally, I think her loud pronouncement was stupid. It would have been smarter to go about her business of meeting with and interacting with the voters and if that left her little time to respond to the media swirl, that is understandable. No point in waving red flags.