This blog was only six months old when I was contacted by Drew Levinson, who asked if I would help him learn more about the profession of crisis management. Drew was certainly no stranger to crises. As a broadcast correspondent for CBS News, Drew covered terrorist attacks in New York City, Hurricane Katrina, the crash of the Concorde, the Columbine tragedy, and the U.S. Airways “Miracle on the Hudson.” Drew wanted to take that experience “over the fence” to become a crisis communications consultant. We made a gentlemen’s agreement to continue talking. A short time later, we’ve partnered on a few crisis-focused media coaching assignments.
Drew’s a terrific guy with an insatiable inquisitive spirit – great qualities for journalists and crisis managers alike. I decided it was time to turn the tables on Drew – to put the microphone and spotlight on him by asking these Three Tough Q’s:
Q1: Based on your experiences and opinion, how common is “thesis journalism,” where more than 50% of a story is written before a company spokesperson is interviewed about a crisis situation?
It’s extremely common. Most crisis situations are sudden and ongoing breaking news stories. Therefore the correspondent’s job is to get information to the public as quickly as possible. That means getting visuals and getting someone to talk.
Nine out of ten times the first interviews come from eyewitnesses, people directly affected, or their family members. It’s simply much easier to interview someone “outside the gates” than inside. Many company representatives aren’t comfortable talking to the media, refuse to talk or aren’t authorized, so it sometimes takes hours before a company representative is available for an interview. In the fierce competition of 24/7 news, the story must be told whether or not a representative has been interviewed.
A good journalist wants a company’s reaction. But if the company does not act quickly enough that reaction is reserved for updates and follow-ups.
Many crisis stories will be reported on the same day they occur. This creates strict deadlines for reporters, who may go in to an interview with an idea of how the story will be reported, has already written much of it and looks for soundbites or quotes to substantiate what has already been written. It is not something most reporters want to do but at times, it is a necessity.
Q2: How much pressure is there in broadcast newsrooms to “tell dramatic stories” about a crisis situation, even at the expense of undermining some mundane facts?
There is tremendous pressure on television journalists to tell dramatic and compelling stories no matter what the story, but especially when covering a crisis situation. That pressure is dictated by competition. Every news organization wants to attract the most eyes to its newscast. The feeling is you must “grab” the viewer and to do that you need drama. You must keep the viewer engaged.
If a news manager, news director, or field reporter tells you today’s journalism is not sensationalistic and more “tabloid” than just three years ago, they’re lying. Most good news managers I know don’t like it – but it is simply the state of news today. The “if it bleeds it leads” line about today’s newscasts is for the most part true. If the story is not compelling and filled with drama then most times it will not be the top story, and may not even make the newscast at all.
Today’s dramatic stories need some combination of villains, victims and heroes. They are all characters in the story that is being told.
It is also important to note that broadcast stories must fit a certain length. Most television news reports are between one and a half minutes to a minute and 45 seconds. That means the most interesting and “juiciest” parts remain, while the mundane parts become expendable.
There’s an old refrain journalists like to say with tongue planted squarely in cheek, “don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.” If an important fact doesn’t raise eyebrows you probably won’t see it on the news. Instead it will show up in some trade journal a week or a month later.
Q3: Has anything surprised you as you made the transition from news-correspondent to communications consultant and trainer?
Coming from one side of the microphone to the other has made me realize how important and necessary media training can be and how it evens the playing field.
As a reporter, I asked questions and, in most instances, I held the upper hand and the power. I tried and was oftentimes able to guide the interview in the direction I wanted it to go. After immersing myself in becoming a media trainer, I am seeing it from the other side. With proper training, the person being interviewed can guide the reporter in a preferred direction.
The only real surprise I have found is the large number of people who are ill-prepared to be interviewed, especially top executives. They are doing a disservice to themselves and their companies if they come off looking bad in an interview.
Got reactions or questions for me or Drew? Make use of the comments section below.