As a communicator, it's easy to get wrapped around the axle trying to remember what we can and cannot talk about. For instance, in the wildfire world, I saw a lot of skittishness last year when it came to air tankers--and for good reason. Contracts and such are complicated things beyond most PIO's (and ICs, FMOs, and agency administrators) understanding. When it comes to flying things that weigh a bunch and get politicized easily, it becomes even tougher to not only get it factually correct, but to also navigate through all the potential political potholes.
Yet just because a topic includes complex and controversial issues does not mean we should surrender the whole conversation to others.
Media briefings are not something we do every day. Sure, crisis communicators and PIOs often do interviews, but a full-blown live media briefing for a high-visibility incident seldom comes around. I've had the luck--or misfortune--of doing media briefings on four incidents during my career. Some were bigger than others and one was more emotional than the rest, but the common elements are multiple and varied media outlets, live broadcasts, long-term and complex incidents, and regional or national (and international) coverage.
Media briefings are perhaps the most intense thing we can do as PIOs/crisis communicators. Not only are we representing all the responders and speaking to all of the public affected, but because of the high visibility, many others are watching and our reputation--perhaps our career--might be influenced by a single exchange. Because of that dynamic, you can look at media briefings as the most personally stressful communications chore. If you are speaking about fatalities, it amps things up even more.
Since the idea of this blog popped into my head, I've been thinking about a post on media briefings. I started writing a few times, but those attempts were ultimately frustrating. As I worked through the process, I came to realize I couldn't build a post around an academic bent or just jot down a basic How-To. No, in order to honestly convey the lessons I learned, it had to be more personal. So please bear with me. As of now, I plan to break the topic up into three posts (maybe four) that will mirror the chronology of my career through the Rodeo-Chedeski, Wallow, and Yarnell Hill fires. (The Eagle Creek Fire will make an occasional guest appearance.) This first one will be the most personal and deal with learning and persevering through failure, the second will cover mostly positive lessons learned, and the third will be about the unique stresses fatalities bring.
Teaching with a PowerPoint built by someone else (especially a committee) is a great opportunity to inspire student and instructor boredom. In the incident response world, we are usually bound by NWCG and FEMA developed presentations. Not only can they be dry, but they are often out of date and not aligned with the frequent changes in incident management and crisis communications/public information. So what's an instructor to do?
Communications plans are essential to any crisis. You have to understand the incident, identify your audiences, select the principal messages, and determine the best ways to deliver and spread your information. Then you have to make sure a lot of other folks understand the plan. For a primary crisis communicator or PIO, you should always have a plan and it should constantly be evolving based on the reality of the incident. However, unlike public affairs people, we often don't have time to write it all down.
Every media training I've ever been to advocated doing away with um and uh. However, this principle is based on what is best for media personalities, not crisis communicators. If you read the advice post, you won't be surprised to know I care little about ums and uhs. They are a natural part of speech and can actually lend credibility in a time of crisis. When you use those fillers it is a sign to everyone listening that you are thinking out loud. You are verbalizing your thoughts.
It is a mantra among just about everyone that we must speak with one voice during times of crisis and uncertainty. It is also a mantra among just about everyone that we should speak with one voice during times of certainty and non-crises. One voice is always justified in the name of consistency, to reduce anticipated public confusion, and if we are being honest, it’s done because the larger organization does not trust some folks to get it right when difficult topics come up. Thus, top-down talking points and no deviation from the core message. The problem, as Peter Sandman points out, is that when you speak with one voice, there is a predictable and increased interest in what those other voices might have to say.
Last week, the Salt Lake Tribune cut their newsroom staff from 90 to 56 and announced they will stop publishing statewide news sections and reduce content in other sections. The Denver Post announced they will drop 30 positions. The Boston Herald recently went from 240 employees to 175. The reduction of reporters is a trend that has been going on since the digital became ascendant.
In 2000, there were 65,900 reporters in the United States, but by 2015, there were 45,800 reporters and their salaries had cumulatively diminished over those years to fall behind the inflation rate. Take broadcast reporters out of the equation, and pay for reporters is below the national average. The decline in job numbers fell mostly on the newspaper side, but local radio also took a big hit.
Occasional thoughts on incident response, crisis communications, wildland fire, and other topics.
Docendo disco, scribendo cogito.
Copyright © Jim Whittington, 2019.