Wednesday, February 11, 2015

When things don't go right

There is a bit of old wisdom that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow bestowed upon us:
Into each life some rain must fall. 
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Since I started the PIO Chronicles, I have focused on the positive and avoided some of the 'learning lessons' that many of us have experienced. After all, I do want to focus this blog on how to do our jobs better, with more skill and with unimpeachable integrity.

There are those moments, however, when things just don't go as planned. And, when they happen, the story ceases to be about the story and instead becomes about the spokesperson's reaction to the media's presence. I offer these incidents without judgement on the part of those who are pictured. Instead, I would like to offer perhaps a few suggestions about how to prevent incidents like this from happening in your jurisdiction.

This event took place in Miami-Dade County on March 22, 2013, and as you can see was precipitated by a disagreement between the Fire/Paramedic Captain in charge and a free-lance videographer.

This incident happened on February 9  in the Dallas-Fort Worth area where reporter Saul Garza was preparing to do a live shot at a location the deputy on scene determined was too close.

These two incidents - and I am sure that many others of a similar nature have occurred in the past,but perhaps were never recorded and posted to YouTube - show us some very important lessons which need to be taken to heart.

First, and most importantly the First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees the freedom of the press. While there are some restrictions on that - for instance, there are laws that prevent the release of information in active criminal investigations or that reporters can't interfere with life-saving work being done by first responders - that doesn't change the fact that news crews will be there to report the news.  That is the reality, and in today's 24-hour news cycle, you can count on that more than ever.

Media on the scene
In order to report the news, reporters will need certain things. Namely:
  • Access to the scene
  • Access to decision makers
  • Access to those involved
  • Access to a view of the incident, provided there is one to see 
Agencies which do not account for these types of requests may be caught by surprise when reporters do show up on scene seeking these items. And, when people are caught unaware, they may try to improvise a response. Just as a fire fighter doesn't abandon her training when approaching a fire or a police officer try a new tactic when he approaches an armed suspect, trying to freelance a response to media on the scene can have consequences.

That's why it is critical to plan for these types of situations. Some suggestions on how to prevent incidents from escalating include:
  • Provide - at a minimum - some basic media relations training to supervisory staff who will be in command in the field. In both of these incidents, there was more than one responder on scene, which potentially could have left one person dedicated to media relations.
  • At the scene, designate someone to work with the media who can at a minimum greet the reporters, establish a media area with as clear a view as possible of the scene and an update on when a briefing will be provided
  • Develop a clear protocol of whom to contact should the number of reporters outstrip the resources on hand or the situation escalate
Again, I can't pass judgement on either one of these situations, given that I don't know all of the facts that led to these reactions. I can say with certainty, however, that the top story certainly wasn't the situation that the reporters initially came to cover.

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist
Pinellas County, Florida

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