Thursday, June 18, 2015

It's a frenzy

It was 40 years ago this week when millions of people changed their ocean swimming habits. Peter Benchley's best selling novel was just made into a movie by a young hotshot director. Even though it went well over budget and took a whole lot longer to shoot and edit than anyone at the studio expected, and even though one of the stars had to leave the United States when shooting wrapped for the week - lest he get arrested for tax evasion - the movie went on to become the first huge summer blockbuster, and one of the highest earning films in history.

Jaws broke box office records around the country - and the world - and set the stage for other huge summer blockbusters to come in future years.

And, author Peter Benchley later regretted writing the book that inspired the movie. As the years went on, Benchley got a better understanding of how sharks really function in the ecosystem, and with more information on the rarity of shark attacks, he came to realize that they aren't the cold blooded predators he portrayed in his novel.

In 2013, auto accidents claimed 35,000 lives in the United States
Fast forward to today, when a pair of shark attacks cost two swimmers an arm each on the beaches of North Carolina, it becomes national news. Never mind that on average 90 deaths occur each day on the roadways of the United States, those two attacks draw the media like moths to a flame.

This recently started an interesting discussion among graduates of FEMA's Advanced Public Information Officer class about fear and its place in today's society. Think for a minute about the recently graduated class of 2015. There were commencement speeches given across the country about the accomplishments of the many students who earned their diplomas. About their academic accolades.

But, there were many speeches given about the dangerous world we live in today. ISIS in Iraq. Ebola. School shootings.

Many of the recent graduates were three or four years old when terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center on 9/11. They can barely remember a time when the United States wasn't at war. Many of them know - or are related to - those who have already done one, two or three tours of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan.

They will never know what it was like to walk to an airport gate and greet family and friends as they step off a plane, or understand that people used to get onto a plane without having to remove their shoes.

Some people speculate about a medical conspiracy
It's also not bad enough to read what's going on in the headlines. The Internet is rife with sites that drive fear in things that leave me scratching my head. That vaccines are somehow killing us to benefit Big Pharma's bottom line, even though life expectancy is the highest it has ever been. That somehow our all-volunteer military is preparing to invade states that disagree with the policies of the current administration - the same administration these states turn to for federal assistance after disasters befall them.

What are we to do about this? Well, there's really no easy answer. As public information officers, it's our job to give maximum disclosure with a minimum delay. Transparency will help keep speculation to a minimum, but it can only play one part in this.

I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on how this can be addressed.

Tom Iovino, Public Relations Strategist
Hillsborough County, Florida

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