Introduction

Working with the media is critical to successful communication. Today the United States does not have a self-contained method to instantly communicate with its citizens, such as an emergency broadcast system that would reach everyone who may need important information about what actions to take. (Be aware that there is either an Emergency Broadcast System (EBS) or Emergency Alerting System (EAS) capability in every state, county, city in the U.S.) The private media act as that emergency broadcast system during a crisis and do it very well. If you ask someone where they go to get up-to-date information during an emergency, they will mention radio, TV, and, today, Web sites. Communities around the nation are served by professional media representatives who recognize their role in public safety. Most media do know this, but there is a huge turnover in the field. You should not assume that they are all aware of this information. There is a need to continually educate the media on their role and its importance in protecting the public.

It is imperative that Emergency Operation Centers (EOC) and all elements of Government and nongovernmental organizations involved in crisis response understand the legitimate needs of the media and how to fulfill those needs as an ongoing and well-thought-out part of the response plan.

Providing For Different Media Outlets

Public emergency planners should acknowledge the media's role in a crisis and plan to meet reasonable media requirements during the crisis. Media representatives have space and time to fill and deadlines to meet. Know those deadlines and work to accommodate them.

As a public organization, the most ethical way to approach that responsibility is to provide all media with fair access at the same time. Through the use of pre-established e-mail addresses, fax numbers, and onsite media opportunities (including teleconferencing so that media away from the event can attend), you can be the pillar of fairness. In the first critical hours or days of an emergency, do not play favorites; equal access to information is imperative

With that said, you should provide for the local media first. Do not discard them in favor of the national media and the well-known names. They will be there long after the initial phases of a crisis or emergency is over and long after the national media have gone home. Local media are counting on local response officials to work with them, and you should. If you are the public information official at the local level, think local media. If you are at the State level, think regional media or border media, and at the national level, think national media. As a public information officer, consider the following before releasing information to the media:
  • Ability Do you have the information on the subject? You must physically have the information before you release it.

  • Competency Are you qualified to discuss the topic with the news media? If you are not the expert, find out who the expert is and arrange to have him or her brief the media.

  • Authority Do you have jurisdiction over the issue? Itís always advisable to stay in close contact to your higher headquarters to coordinate your response and get its view of "the big picture."

  • Security Is the information classified? The security limitation is most important because of the need to safeguard classified and operationally sensitive information.

  • Accuracy Is the information accurate? Public information officers have an obligation to provide accurate, factual information and to avoid speculation.

  • Propriety Is the information appropriate to the situation? Ensure that information released displays sensitivity and dignity. For example, do not release photographs of disease victims that could distress family members.

  • Policy Do the policies of your organization permit release of this information?

Helping The Media Get Your Message Out video:  Golan on "Timeliness and accuracy"28

During an unfolding emergency, media may not behave as they normally would, so you must expect the possibility of this different behavior from them during the early moments of a crisis. The following table lists actions that you can take to help get your message out.

  • Provide verified information. Diminished information verification. Tentative, sometimes incorrect, information will be broadcast.

  • Utilize the media's willingness to provide important messages to the public. In a crisis, the media's adversarial role may be diminished. (Media are people, too). They will have genuine concern about what is occurring and will desire to help by providing important messages. Do not expect the media to be this accommodating throughout the entire crisis, but in the beginning, the level of "them" versus "us" does diminish.

  • Respect local media deadlines and keep the information flowing to help disseminate local public health messages. For major crises, expect the national media to dominate. Most people will be getting their news from the national media. Local media will be feeding information to the national media, coordinating the coverage.

  • Set up a Joint Information Center (JIC). Media will be expecting a central place where they can consolidate information to deliver to their viewers and listeners. The JIC is used as a central point where "official information" is dispensed. Initially, the media will accept that a lot of their information must come from the JIC. Within hours or days, depending on the crisis, media will be looking for other perspectives and other places from which to broadcast.

  • Provide adequate scientific expertise. Another reality during a public health emergency, especially those involving infectious disease issues, is that many media will not have the technical or scientific background to quickly grasp new information or the nuances of that information, as in the case of Magic Johnson's announcement that he was HIV positive. Prepare to fill in the blanks. Speaking plainly to the media is a good way to practice speaking plainly to the public during the emergency. Start with the basics and bring your reporters along. They will appreciate not being made to feel stupid, and you will appreciate that the reports are accurate.
  • Respect the mediaís role. Donít expect to tell them what to do. Understand their needs.

Writing For The Media During A Crisis

When writing information for the media, remember the following points.

  • The pressure will be tremendous from all quarters.
  • It must be fast and accurate.
  • If information is not finalized, explain the process.

Getting Emergency Information To The Media video:  Golan on "Ways to get information out"29

There are a variety of ways to get emergency information to the media, each with its own advantages and disadvantages:


Media releases

In an emergency, print information must move electronically to the media or be distributed as handouts to media at the site of the incident. If it is important enough to put down on paper (the information will remain current for at least a 24-hour cycle), get it done.

Pluses:

  • Ensures consistent information to all media
  • Provides an historical record-in-the-making
  • Allows for background information and direction to other sources of information
  • Gives media, who like paper, something in their hands from which to work
  • Makes available prepared releases, that can be fill-in-the-blank and that will guide you to answer the questions at the top of reporters' minds; keeps you organized in the early hours
  • Creates expectation for releases within the media and public
  • Allows for the same releases to be posted on your own Web site.

Minuses:

  • Releases take considerable time to write, and information may be in flux.
  • It may be difficult to clear them through all layers of official command.
  • If the release is not coming from the EOC command post (if it is involved), it could start a turf war.
  • Reporters will expect more where that came from; be prepared to consistently release information this way.
  • If the release of information is not organized through a command post, competing press releases could frustrate media, especially if releases cover information that spans across response areas, and if it is unclear who is responsible for collecting and releasing what information.

The Press Conference/Media Opportunity

Pluses:

  • If media are at the site of an event, it's an effective way to conduct media interview requests in one shot and control their access to the site.
  • It helps ensure consistency in the information released.
  • It can introduce your spokesperson and subject matter experts to the public, and allow them to express caring and begin to build their credibility with the public.
  • It allows the response organizations to show very early on that there is a process in place to respond to the crisis and that, although the event is unfolding, someone is ready to help with response and recovery.
  • Strict rules about questions from the media can be imposed.
  • If information is changing rapidly, or if not enough is known to issue a press release, it fulfills the immediate need of electronic media to fill space and time.
  • Elected officials have a forum to embrace the response effort and present a united front (Remember that elected officials will not always support your actions - often this will depend on whether it is politically expedient for them to do so).

Minuses:

  • It is sometimes difficult to get the right people in front of the media to give updates (planning helps).
  • Information may be sketchy and response officials may balk at meeting with the media when they do not have the answers (training helps).
  • If media cannot be at the site, they may find it difficult to get the information they want or need (fax, Web postings can provide needed information).
  • You can not do this once; media will expect periodic media opportunities.
  • If coordination is not solid, you could find that competing media opportunities are occurring. Local, State, and Federal officials, and people across levels of other organizations, need to have a plan and agree to the timing of media opportunities.
  • Media's pack mentality early on will push the limits of any rules set about the length of the opportunity and the no-questions policy. (There must be an escape route from the media area for speakers).
  • Media will want to follow up with individual interviews. Set the ground rules and be consistent.


Satellite Media Tours

Pluses:

  • Allow media who cannot be on site at the event or are prevented by the nature of the public health emergency (e.g., the area becomes restricted) to be given access to the center of action and response officials.
  • Provide a way for local or regional media to speak in depth to subject matter experts and ask questions that are specific to their region or population.
  • Increase the chances that media in other local or regional areas get it right (right from the horse's mouth, so to speak) instead of translated through national media back to them at the local level.

Minuses:

  • Expensive
  • Not easily arranged in a crisis, unless resources and agreements are in place in advance
  • Limited reach; right only for very specific situations
  • After a round robin of similar interviews, can burn out spokesperson.
  • Time consuming.


Telephone News Conferences/Web Casts

Pluses:

  • Reach far more media than just those at the site of the incident
  • Multiple community and national involvement give local and national media access to response officials
  • Easy to arrange
  • Moderate cost
  • Allow the number of telephone lines to be adjusted according to rising or falling interest from the media
  • Officials are generally comfortable with this format
  • Permit great flexibility in when and where
  • Offer control by public information official of who has the toll-free number
  • Can be regularly scheduled to provide to the media information that the public needs and wants in order to protect themselves and their families by assuring them of regular updates
  • Format allows last-minute changes in spokesperson (e.g., a new development requires a new expert to appear or a spokesperson is called away for unavoidable reasons; it is easier to get a substitute)
  • Time for questions and whom is asking the question is announced by call moderator (phone operator)
  • List of all participants is provided by phone operator, even those not asking a question, making news monitoring and analysis easier
  • Can be archived and made available to media after the fact
  • Can be recorded so transcripts can be supplied on request.

Minuses:

  • Require a funding source or contract in place in advance
  • Cost can add up over time
  • Difficult to wean media from this format; regular calls should not be stopped abruptly
  • Do not fulfill the visual needs of TV news; favor print and Web media.


Commercial News Release Services

Pluses:

  • Eliminate the need to maintain up-to-date media lists
  • News releases move very rapidly to newsrooms
  • A list of media outlets that received the release is available
  • A way to reach media that may not be on your core media list but have an interest in what is occurring.

Minuses:

  • Funding source must be in place in advance or it will be unworkable during the crisis.
  • Releases through a newswire may appear less than official for some types of emergency information that, perhaps, should come directly from the response organization to the newsroom.
  • They may not be necessary and could waste resources when media are actively engaged; more appropriate at less intense times during the emergency response.


E-mail Listserves And Broadcast Fax

Pluses:

  • You can almost instantly reach out with information to the media on your e-mail listserv at an imperceptible cost during the emergency.
  • Corrections are easy to make.
  • The organization gets credit for having contacted reporters or outlets by name.
  • They are an open channel to media that (until the media yells "stop!") allows you to feed them information at will.

Minuses:

  • They require regular updating and maintenance - media moves around often
  • They are a passive way to give the media information; some may not get to your e-mail or broadcast fax until it is too late for them or you
  • They are not highly personal; media may still want a return phone call
  • They require cleared print information, which is time-intensive for the public information office and could slow down information flow from the incident to the media.

Web Sites/Video Streaming

Pluses:

  • Serve as a rapid way to simultaneously update all media
  • Become transparent because the public and media will see the same information on the site
  • Organize the documents and create an historical record for media and the organization
  • Permit links to help media collect background information
  • Allow rumors, myths, and misinformation to be addressed without drawing undue attention
  • Allow official video or pictures to be available to media digitally
  • Permit frequently asked questions (FAQs) on the page to do double duty for media and the public, providing a user-friendly way to educate both during a crisis
  • Very inexpensive communication tool.

Minuses:

  • Not available to all public or media
  • May frustrate media if too much information/links are provided or the organization of the Web site is not clear; media want it easy and immediate (you may have to walk some of them through the site the first time)
  • Require the availability of a Web master throughout the crisis who is willing to get updates posted to the Web site within the 2-hour window that should be maintained between release of information and its appearance on the Web
  • Technology dependent - may be vulnerable to glitches or interruption by hackers, etc.
  • May not satisfy the media's need to provide to the public information that's not on the Web.


Response To Media Calls

Pluses:

  • Media can give you information you may not be aware of (e.g., a neighborhood leader who is complaining that the response resources are not being distributed fairly; it is a fact that some disgruntled publics will call the media for resolution before they will call the responsible official organization).
  • Media inquiries may reflect the public's level of interest. The number of calls and frequency of subjects raised can give the response community a peek at what is important to the public and where more information resources may need to be directed.
  • One-on-one contact with the media allows emphasis on key message points, directs media to upcoming issues, and corrects misinformation.

Minuses:

  • Returning calls takes a lot of time.
  • Potential exists for inconsistent or premature release of information, unless press officers and spokespersons are well trained and coordinated. (Note: Returning calls is not typically the role of the spokesperson. If resources permit, establishing and training telephone teams is important as they can handle phone communications).
  • Follow-up calls may be required if information changes before the media/reporter releases the information or you will be guilty of not giving them the right information.
  • Phone Tag is the name of the game.
  • Massive prioritization is required, and the media will know if they are not at the top of the list.
  • You can become the public library or return calls on subjects not in your area of responsibility unless the screening of calls is very well done (If you have one, a telephone team can handle screening of calls).

 

How To Work With Reporters video:  Reynolds on "Media: It's their job to ask tough questions"27

When dealing with reporters, remember the following points.

  • Reporters want a front seat to the action and all information NOW.
  • Preparation will save relationships.
  • If you do not have the facts, tell reporters the process.
  • There are 70,000 media outlets in the U.S. media that cover the news 24/7.

Responding To Media Errors: Misperceptions and Myths

The follow actions give suggestions for dealing with errors that appear in media outlets.

  • Remain calm.

  • Analyze the situation. What is your relationship with the reporter and media outlet? Did the article attempt to be balanced? Was there truly inaccuracy or was it a negative slant? Is the piece true, even though it is "bad news"?

  • Know what to ask for. Retraction or correction? A correction in the permanent record? Another piece that represents your point of view? An apology? A letter to the editor or a guest editorial?

  • Know whom to contact. Reporter first, then the editor or producer. If you have doubts about the integrity of the media, consider alternative outlets.

  • Know what you want to communicate. Develop your message carefully. Have it reviewed. Frame it in a positive way. Include a call to action, if appropriate. Focus on promoting public health. Keep any anger or frustration you have at critics or the media out of the message.

  • Do not delay.

 

Video Clips:
video:  Reynolds on "Media: It's their job to ask tough questions"27 Reynolds on "Media: It's their job to ask tough questions"
video:  Golan on "Timeliness and accuracy"28 Golan on "Timeliness and accuracy"
video:  Golan on "Ways to get information out"29 Golan on "Ways to get information out"