Thursday, November 16, 2006

Soapbox Moment

At a legal conference in Washington, D.C., today, there were some quite harsh things said about the media in relation to mine disasters.

Since I’ve worked both sides of the aisle, government and journalism, I’ve seen how a mine disaster changes lives – everyone’s. I’ve seen, and experienced, the emotional agony on all sides. I’ve experienced things that caused me to feel quite cynical, and I’ve found that cynicism is not always justified and can sometimes, with care, be overcome.

So I am putting on my old “public affairs” hat to set out some personal opinion, which goes for any organization involved with a mine emergency – government, industry, miners’ representatives, law firms, whatever. For some, this is preaching to the choir, of course. But I do think that if more people understood some things better, it would benefit the whole mining community.

First off: If you start out with a cynical and adversarial attitude to the media, the media tend to respond in kind.

Try to forget the paparazzi that chased Lady Diana into the fatal tunnel; they are not covering mine safety.

Some media may start out with a cynical and adversarial attitude to you, or just some prejudices and preconceptions. But by showing good faith – honestly, calmly and with patience – you really can sometimes modify that stance during the course of an emergency or investigation. Not always, to be sure; that is one of the frustrations of the profession, but at least half the time. I’ve seen it happen.

All writing teachers advise writers, “Show, not tell.” It’s the same with communications. Don’t just assert good faith. Demonstrate it. Your acts – and your organization’s acts -- are as important as your statements in communicating who you are.

Reporters by and large do not set out to hurt survivors of accidents. Reporters and editors are individuals, of course, and some are a good deal less than sensitive. The more local they are, sometimes the greater comprehension and sensitivity for members of the community, which is natural. I have seen a local TV reporter make a point to turn his camera around, facing away from family members as they left a mine site. But believe it or not, a lot of major media reporters also can be quite human when treated as such.

If they can’t get facts from an official source, preferably more than one source, then reporters are forced to turn to people on the sidelines, who do not know the whole situation, who may only know rumors, who may be shell-shocked and hurting and upset. Telling an editor, “Sorry, no one will talk to me,” just isn’t an option.

Stonewalling leads people to conclude there is something to hide. Then they can easily think you are not in good faith. Stonewalling appears to say something about you, even when you are not saying anything.

You don’t have to wait for the media to come to you with questions, either. If you have something to communicate, you can reach out.

In the course of an emergency, or investigation, keep up a flow of meaningful information over time. As public relations people say, “Feed the ‘beast.’” The beast may turn out to be less than beastly. Yes, you can do this without compromising an investigation.

Attorneys are good communicators but tend to be consumed with strictly legal issues during and after an emergency. Other officials may be a better choice to take the lead in managing the media. A professional communicator can be a good choice, preferably one who knows a fair amount about mining, since this is such as specialized field.

Make sure your professional communicator is really part of your team, really knows what’s going on, and has at least some authority to make on-the-spot judgment calls. When this person is just a mouthpiece and buffer who has to play Mother-May-I with higher authority over every little detail, people can tell. It’s not as bad as stonewalling, but it can contribute to cynicism. Teaming a professional communicator with a subject matter expert or official can work very well.

The public these days is quite sophisticated about “spin.” When making certain decisions, the high road is to consider what that decision is likely to say about you, in the eyes of the public, rather than expecting the public relations department to “spin” whatever decision is made. Think about the Tylenol case.

Finally, news media attention is needed. None of us would really be happy if it went away. For instance, how would you like it, if there was a major emergency or other public issue in your community, and you were told not to ask questions? If information came only from the government and organizations with a vested interest? If there were no alternate viewpoints available? The media fill a vital function, and as part of their job, they sometimes have to cross-check "official" stories and exercise a certain level of skepticism. Besides the "who, what, when, and where," they probe in order to fulfill people's natural concern with "how" and "why."

They don't always do it well. Media coverage, like other human endeavors, is rarely perfect. Most people at times feel one outlet or another is unfair. And sometimes they are right. But if so, it makes more sense to keep dialogue open, when possible, and try to improve things, rather than write off the whole endeavor.

Okay, climbing off the soapbox now.

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