The changing face of journalism and how it should be reflected in our plans

Posted on 28 March

This week I shares my thoughts on the evolution of journalism and how crisis communication plans should be adapted to keep up with the changes.

I have been working on some strategic/crisis level plans and have been thinking about what should go into the crisis communication section of the plans. In quite a number of plans I have seen details of how the organisation would run a press conference, especially those whose plans were written ten years or so ago. The details in their plans went down to who sat next to who, how they would be run and the location they would use. I was thinking, I can’t remember when I last saw a company after an incident run a press conference. So, I put the question out on LinkedIn and there was a general consensus that nowadays the only people who would run them were the emergency services or as Jonathan Hemus said, “Exceptions would include crises of the largest magnitude (usually physical events such as terrorism or a major environmental incident) in which multiple organisations are involved in the response”. They are not often used because, as Alex Hunter who also responded to my post said, they are “a terrible means to keep control of your message”.

This got me thinking about how changes in journalism and the way people get their information and news should be reflected in the plans we write. Some of my ideas below are gut feel rather than from research so I am happy to receive comments, as there were on last week’s bulletin, if any readers think I have got it right!

  1. Press conferences are out unless you are from the emergency services and would run a multi-agency one in response to a major incident. Note this this is just for the UK in othe rcountries the press conference may be the way they expect incident information to be delivered.
  2. When social media began between 10-15 years ago, there were lots of crisis communication evangelists, such as Melissa Agnes, telling us that if our organisations weren’t on social media they needed to be, as the conversation about our incidents would take place on social media, with or without our input. Organisations were told that they should get a social media presence and build an audience, so that they would be willing to hear our views during an incident, rather than listen to rumour and untruth pushed by others. Twitter was especially important to have a presence on. I think Twitter has changed over the last few years to be a voice piece platform for politicians, influencers, celebrities and trolls to do their thing. If these people are going to have an interest in your incident and comment on it then you need to be there, but if you are less than a household name and are a B2B organisation, perhaps very few on Twitter are going to be interested in your incident and so a Twitter presence is less importance. If your customers or key stakeholders are to be found on a particular platform, make sure you have a presence there. If you have social media accounts displayed on your website, use them regularly and use them in an emergency to put out information. Don’t have social media accounts just for emergencies, use your website instead for getting across your message.
  3. Those who teach crisis communications and deliver media training are often ex-journalists or newscasters. Of course, you want to have your media training from someone who was on the TV. They would have you believe the power of journalists and that you have to talk to them and you have to learn all the techniques for conducting media interviews, especially aggressive ones. But why give an interview with a hostile journalist? There are lots of ways of bypassing them and getting your side of the story across. Exercises ten years ago might even have had people playing journalists bursting into your crisis room and trying to interview the CEO. Over the last few years journalism has greatly changed. The demise of local papers has meant that there are fewer journalists to take an interest in local events and incidents. Investigative journalism is expensive so they will look at big important stories, which perhaps does not include your organisation’s incident. The tabloids don’t have the same power as they did one or two decades ago and there are less people reading them. I was looking at the coverage over the last few weeks of the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) cyber breach and most of the newspaper/online news converge was almost direct lifts from the information they put out on their website. There was little or no attempt to try and interview someone from the organisation or to try and get the inside line from a member of staff. My takeaway is that journalists will often be too busy to take an interest in your incident or don’t have the time to discover and write original content. Journalists are on the whole less powerful than they were and your crisis communication plans should aim to produce original content which journalists can use so you don’t have to be interviewed or reply to them if you don’t want to.
  4. Press releases which are sent out to a number of news outlets are becoming a thing of the past. When they hear about an incident, journalists will automatically head to your website or social media accounts to get information on the incident. Unless informing the public of an incident, such as where your product could cause them harm, then press releases and having a list of press outlets to send your release out to should no longer be part of your crisis communications plans.
  5. Websites are becoming a lot more important as a way of propagating news and informing all those who are interested in an incident. It is an ideal way of getting your message across, controlling the dialogue and giving detailed information to those who need it. How you use the website, how it is configured and who does what are all important and should be detailed in your plans. The following should be considered:
    • Where within the website should the information be held – buried under news/media or a separate “dark” section which is only activated in an emergency?
    • How will you signpost incident information from the front page of the website to the relevant section within the website?
    • You should have the capacity to be able to record a video message from the CEO so that they can talk directly to those affected.
    • You need to have the ability to produce accurate information if there is potentially public harm or you want those affected to take actions.
    • You need someone who can write well and does not produce poorly written contradictory statements.

When writing plans we need to make sure that we are advising clients, or our organisation is up-to-date and fit for purpose. As the world gets faster, news cycles shorter and outrage on social media more outraged, then detailed planning and being prepared is even more important. So is making sure that what we are writing in plans is up-to-date and reflects current thinking.