Crystal Gazing

Jonathan writes:  A while ago I organised an event all about the media and crises.  I lined up 3 speakers all with personal experiences of major incidents;

The first presenter spoke about his experiences in 1985 at the Bradford City football ground fire.  Fifty six people died at the ground and by any measure the incident was a major catastrophe.   From a media communication perspective the environment was such that once the printing presses were rolling at around 11pm for the morning papers the broadcast media also closed down for the night.  The communications team could pretty much go home and get a reasonable amount of sleep provided that they were back at their desks for when local radio kicked off again in the morning at about 6am.

Roll the clock forward to 1996 and our second presenter, Linda Scott, Communications Manager at the Maritime & Coastguard Agency related the story of her involvement with the Sea Empress oil ship that went aground in Milford Haven.  What had changed in the media was the development of 24 hour rolling news.  So once things were relatively quiet in the UK the news media in other parts of the world were waking up and wanting the latest news on the story. It meant that the demand for news was constant.

The third presenter was Philip Malpass at the time Director of Communications with Bass Brewers.  I invited Philip to get out his crystal ball and take a look ten years into the future and try to predict how the media might be dealing with crises in ten years time. Philip’s crystal ball gazing led him to envisage a future where the time available to react to any incident was reduced to a point where the media would be reporting a story almost immediately. 

It is just over ten years since Philip made that prediction and I think today that Philip’s prediction has come to pass. 

I thought about that event a decade ago as I was preparing for an address I was to make to UMAL (the University’s Mutual Assurance Limited) the theme of which was dealing with the media at the time of a major incident. As a part of that talk I mentioned the new paradigm for crisis communication and the impact upon organisations as they try to react to the demands of communicating at the time of a major incident.

Potentially we are all journalists today.  The mobile phone gives us the capability to go live on air, take photos and e-mail them, to take video and upload footage to YouTube; through programmes such as Justin TV we can broadcast live from our phones in real time. People are increasingly aware of the value of news and are being actively encouraged to provide and sell stories to the media.  The concept of the so called Citizen Journalist is now quite mature.

The challenge this presents to you, at the eye of the storm, having to deal with an incident is that the time you have to respond is almost nil. As examples of this, mobile phone footage of ambulances arriving at London hospitals was used on 7/7 coverage and the first four hours of video from Buncefield was all mobile phone footage.

The old paradigm of crisis communications was that an incident occurred, relatively few people witnessed it and they had very limited means by which to tell a limited number of others.  The organisation made their response to the incident and at some point informed the media who then informed everyone else.

Today that has changed because in the immediate aftermath of an incident a relatively few eye witnesses have the power to inform a lot of people immediately and they in turn have the ability to tell a lot more people.  The media will no longer wait for the official response from the organisation but will start reporting eye witness accounts as soon as they are aware of the incident.  All of which can make the organisational response seem slow and ponderous.

You as an organisation must be prepared to communicate quickly, and in order to do this as a part of your communications plan you should have already lined up trained people ready to deliver content through appropriate formats.  Much of the content of those communications should already be in place.   If you can get ahead of the game through effective planning then you are in with a chance of riding the storm.

Reflecting on that event ten or so years ago I asked myself the question, “where is it all going now?”  I predict two things; firstly that far more people will engage as citizen journalists as they become familiar with the technology and their ability to be a part of news delivery.  Secondly, whilst the increase in the speed of delivery of news content will now be marginal, the quality of the content will improve significantly.  The technology going forward will support better quality pictures and sound from smaller and more flexible personal communication devices.

In the future we will all be broadcast journalists.

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