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)

Dave Fleet
EVP Digital at Edelman. Husband and dad of two. Cycling nut; bookworm; videogamer; Britnadian. Opinions are mine, not my employer's.