Gerald Baron, as he’s wont to do, has inspired some discussion with
his post on the media’s response to Hurricane Irene. Yesterday I
talked about how we, as PIOs, can avoid being seen as someone that is
perpetually “crying wolf.” Today, I’d like to talk a bit about my
other problem with the media’s coverage of the event.
This post will look more closely at the seemingly pervading feeling
that the media “over-hyped” what ended up being a weak, ineffectual
storm. I, obviously, don’t feel that it was over-hyped and in fact
feel that the media could have done more to warn about the storm.
Given that I have absolutely no sway over how the media is going to
cover the news, I want to know what we can do differently, and I think
that I have an idea.
But let’s start at the beginning. My biggest problem with the national
media’s coverage of the hurricane is not that it was over-hyped or
under-hyped, it’s that it was too focused. The biggest storyline
leading up to landfall was not the initial landfall in North Carolina,
or the effects in Virginia, Delaware or Maryland; it was all New York,
all the time. First hurricane in a century, Category 3 at landfall,
could swamp the subway lines! And it came to New York and feebly
drenched everything. And New York breathed a sigh of relief. Jokes by
members of the media posted to Twitter mocked the
Just lost power in Brooklyn…. on my ipad. It’s ok recharging now
But the storm, well, she just kept doing her thing. And rained and
stormed in upstate New York, and Connecticut, and Massachusetts, and
Vermont, and New Hampshire, and Maine. And anyone who knows about the
geography of our country knows why lots of rain in New York may not be
terrible, but lots of rain in Vermont is.
To hear the national media talk about it, though, it was all, “dodged
a bullet,” “lucky breaks,” and storm wrap-up.
I wondered why this was, I mean, the storm wasn’t even gone. Then I
remembered that most national media is headquartered in New York. They
had dodged a bullet, and everywhere north of them? Well, I don’t
want to say they didn’t care what happened, but the relief that was
evident on the broadcasts was palpable.
So, what does this mean for us as PIOs (who probably live outside of
New York, Washington and Los Angeles)? Well, first we need to realize
our spot in the pecking order. The national media, for all of their
goods and their bads, are human beings with homes and families and
neighbors. They care about their hometown as much as any of us and
given the choice over what to fret about, well, the choice is easy for
me, too. And if something bigger comes along, whether in New York or
Kansas City, the next thing you’ll see from them is their satellite
vans cutting tracks through your lawn on their way to the highway.
So, to figure out what to do, let’s do a little role-play. You’ve got
a disaster. Something big and heinous. And you’ve got Anderson Cooper
choppering in and maybe even some international press. Now, you’ve
been to all of those FEMA PIO classes, so you know how to integrate
them into the response framework. Media holding area, pool reports,
view of the southern sky, spell everyone’s name out, the whole nine.
And they are pressed and dressed and made up and ask the hard
questions and push to the front of the press conference because, do
you know who they work for? I’m from the network, bitch.
And then they’ll get your executive on TV and say what a
great/terrible job your agency did, and hop back into their vans and,
whew what a week! Your town got hit pretty hard, and with a lot of
work you guys will pull through. And who’s there to report on all of
the sacrifices your town made? And the Herculean effort you’ll have to
pull off to recover from this disaster? Not Anderson Cooper. It’ll be
that bookish fellow from the local weekly. It’ll be the local health
reporter that’s got your home phone number because, goshdarnit, you
guys have worked together for the last twenty years.
I know that Anderson Cooper is a great reporter, and the network folks
are the ones you see every night, and they look nice and frankly, it’s
not hard to be a bit starstruck. I am. But when that disaster hits,
don’t forget your local media. They’re the ones who will be there for
the long haul. They’re the ones who you’ve built a relationship with.
They’re the ones who keep telling your public, “Yeah, it didn’t hit
New York that bad, but it’s still a monster storm and it’s headed
right for us.” Definitely clear some space for those satellite trucks,
but don’t forget to also make sure that the local beat reporter gets
to ask a question at the presser.