How Do You Define ‘Media’ In A Crisis?

Huntsville flood I recently witnessed the government’s emergency management operation in action when flooding in the Ontario community of Huntsville left roughly 120 homes under 5 feet of water in early January.

I was the communications guy at the Provincial Emergency Operations Centre. While we never moved from a monitoring role, it was fascinating to see things click into gear.

Skip forward to last Thursday. I sat in on my final ‘legacy’ from my old job – an excellent course on crisis communications that I organized last year before moving on.

It’s fair to say I’ve thought a lot about crisis communications (more formally, "emergency information") recently.

During the course, the instructors repeatedly mentioned the need to monitor conversations online, both to prevent issues from worsening and to ensure you’re aware of what people are saying during an actual crisis.

However, they were very clear that when it came to the media attending news conferences and reporting on a crisis, you should only allow accredited, traditional media to attend.

Noticing the apparent contradiction, I asked the instructors if they saw their definition of "media" expanding or blurring over time to include bloggers or other "citizen journalists." Did they see a move towards dealing with new forms of the media in a crisis?

The answer: a firm "no."

Normally I would argue quite strongly with a response like that. However, I can see two valid sides to this issue in an emergency situation.

Side 1: Stick To "Traditional" Media

Crises and disasters can be chaotic. You need to maintain control of the situation. Not in the traditional "control the media" sense of the word, but in the "keeping order" sense. By vetting journalists, you can prevent people who are intent on disrupting things from getting access to the scene.

Furthermore, in a major incident you may already have more journalists on the scene than you can deal with. If you have 600 journalists present but only have the capacity to take 300 on a site visit, adding 400 "citizen journalists" to the mix only complicates things and dilutes your efforts among more people. (I made those numbers up)

Side 2: Work With The "New" Media

We’ve already established that you’re monitoring blogs, messages boards and the like for coverage of the situation. In an ideal world you’re responding to it, too. Why not give them access to the situation? These people are worthy of note, but only after they’ve criticized you?

I could take issue, too, with the idea that allowing the great unwashed public into the situation constitutes a serious risk. Media aren’t given free access to everything – centrally they’re still located in a designated area away from the operations centre and on-site they’re in a similarly-controlled location.

My Take

I’m not too sure where I stand on this question. On one hand it grates that citizens aren’t seen as trustworthy. On the other hand, if even minor incidents like Huntsville can be difficult to coordinate then it is essential to keep things running as smoothly as possible.

(Note: I use the word ‘minor’ only in terms of scale – the Huntsville flood wasn’t minor or insignificant for the people affected, responders on the scene or those of us responding to the emergency)

What do you think? Are we right to limit access to a crisis to professional media in the name of security and stability, or does emergency management need to change its definition of the media?

(Photo credit: Stephen Hernen)

  • Everyone is wrestling with how to engage with nontraditional media during a crisis. A lot of the uncertainty comes from an unrealistic desire to control communications.

    Those days are gone. Just monitoring nontraditional media (a good thing) is not enough. Authorities have to deal with the simple fact that an increasing number of people are using their own communications channels to not only exchange information but to influence events.

    As much as some dislike it, authorities need to become “part of the conversation” via all channels when disaster strikes. That means having a plan ready to put in place not just for monitoring but for distributing information and interacting with people via all channels, both traditional and nontraditional.

    More thoughts along these lines are here:

    http://www.ddmcd.com/school.html

  • I think there are big opportunities for organizations to use new media in conjunction with old media as new ways of getting out their messages.

    I heard about a guy last year (maybe it was on For Immediate Release) with a state Red Cross. He had started recording updates during disaster situations on an hourly basis and uploading them to a web site. He was then directing radio stations to them for their sound bites and quotes, rather than doing 22 separate interviews with local radio.

    Sounded like a brilliant idea to me.

  • To my mind, the new media is here now and not to engage with it at any level is akin to the ostrich technique of evasion. By ignoring it, it will not simply disappear. Just thinking off the top of my head here, how about emergency regional wikis? That way traditional journalists and guardians of the press could work in tandem with citizen journalists and bloggers in order to make sure that the subjective does not override the objective, and that a wide ranging overview of the situation on the ground can be achieved. Regional wikis could be set up nationwide and they would then be collated in a national wiki. Do you know if anyone is doing this already, or do you think this is complete pie in the sky?

  • It comes down to what is the function of media relations in emergency agencies. (In another life I was a media relations officer (civilian) with a provincial police force.) During an emergency, it’s the role of the agency to first announce (via mainstream media) that something has happened and we’re responding. This can be done in the first moments following an incident of any size and nature. Second function is to reduce panic and lessen any potentially dangerous public response by issuing as much information as possible. Only after the dust settles somewhat will there be time (and energy) to open more lines of communication.

  • (amended post)
    I ll take the chance to say something that I said before (mantra). The role of citizens media is not to go and get information at a press conference, like traditional media I think this would be contrary in principle to what citizens media is. Media get their information sitting down from someone who tells them their version of the story.(then they should go and verify it, sometimes they do and sometimes they dont due to a number of reasons, from production timetables to how smart the editor is). Citizens media collect the information directly from where it is generated. The people tell their stories, which often are different stories from what the media tells us. How come? Thats where many of us believe they can become highly complementary. A professional journalist, like a detective, checks out the facts, whether they are told at a press conference or by the people in the street. Puts the pieces together. Compares the versions. Takes into account ethics and sensitive issues. Is aware that he can damage a person, or an institution. Is careful
    Makes sure that readers see the different perspectives, and understand that what the reporter is writing, is simply what the reporter has found out.

    Much press however, as well as much citizens’ media, sadly, is about stirring up emotions Grabbing traffic, spiking the number of visits, ‘ hit a million views’, climb the popularity index. Both traditional media and citizens media can deliver great benefit in case of emergency
    By helping to gather information where is available, and distribute it where this information can be used to
    improve efficiency of the relief operation. And the public can be informed, and contribute accordingly (we need volunteers here, doctors there, milk and nappies, a crane etc) Operational communication channels get clogged, and the rescue services cannot cope with the scale of the disaster. That’s where the media and the citizens can make a difference.
    Instead, we get half truths, lots of inventions, information that is plain wrong, the media will tell us tomorrow that yesterday the aid did not get there on time. Heck. Whay, what was the media doing about that? Just Providing good quality information during emergency is the most valuable contribution, irrespective of who provides it.
    The quality of information – accurate, verifyiable, complete, timely – is important. Coordination, filtering, updating, is critical.
    The convergence of citizens and traditional media can increase the quality of the information greatly,
    provided ‘how to produce quality information’ is clar to both, and that readers become critical and demand quality information from their providers. Today, much of the media does propaganda. Political, commercial, ideological, And that won’t help, especially, damn it, during a crisis. So I do see a great role for citizens’ media during emergency, especially when it can provide higher quality information than traditional media.

  • (finishing the post)
    That’s when the balance can tip. Until then, it’s going to be much noise, and people will still believe ‘because I read so in the paper’ (ha ha ha)
    Can every citizen with a blog be a good journalist? I dont think so. Can every citizen with a blog contribute to good information? yes

    Paola Di Maio | Homepage | 01.28.08 – 12:46 pm | #

  • I wrote an article called the “I-Reporter: Born of the Web” LONG before CNN started encouraging people to submit their own videos under that bannder. It’s all about the need to redefine what “media” means and can be found at:

    http://www.bernsteincrisismanagement.com/docs/the_i-reporter–born_of_the_web.html

    or this TINY URL:

    http://tinyurl.com/2rvl2o

  • Hal Gill

    During the attacks on 9/11, I was sitting in my office in Copenhagen, Denmark. I heard about the first plane hitting through a member of a list serve to which I then belonged. I immediately went to the regular media, but the NY Times Web site was down in seconds and Der Spiegel wasn’t up for much longer. From that point, I began relying on ICQ contacts to keep me up to date. One in Bulgaria, one in Arizona, another in Karachi, Pakistan gave me second by second reports about what they heard until I could leave the office for the evening and join a friend at her apartment.

    Social media, in this case in the form of instant messaging became my only reliable source for information.
    For what it’s worth…