When media are in a rush to deadline (and when aren't they?), journalists look to simplify complex situations. In a crisis, news media will look to industry "experts" for a quick read on causes and trends and quickly settle on the angle that becomes the prevailing media archetype for that tragedy..
Let's look at a number of recent tragedies involving aircraft:
- The "Miracle in the Hudson", the emergency "landing" of a US Air Airbus this past January in the chilly Hudson River -- attention focused on the phenomenon of bird-strikes. (Another subtext that quickly emerged in this tragedy averted -- pilot as hero).
- A month later, coverage of the crash of a Continental Connection regional jet near Buffalo, N.Y. at first focused on pilot fatigue and then narrowed to a focus on under-paid pilots flying regional carriers' jets, including subsequent Federal NTSB hearings.
- The disappearance over the Atlantic June 1 of an Air France Airbus created a frenzy of speculation that faulty air speed monitors might have been at fault. Carriers rushed to inspect and replace air speed monitors on their Airbus jets.
- The latest air tragedy involving a helicopter and small plane at low altitude over the Hudson has focused attention on the crowded airspace above Manhattan and other places served by sight-seeing helicopters and small aircraft.
Once conventional media wisdom has settled on the angle to be explored, questions will begin to ask "what did you know and when did you know it," as in the Air France tragedy. The facts are by no means all in, but coverage has centered on a single angle for several days and viewers and readers are getting bored. So media turn to question executives at the company in the middle of the tragedy who surely knew about the "problem" much earlier and should have taken action to avoid the accident. (I don't have any first-hand knowledge of this case, so I'm not making any judgments about how Air France execs acted or should have acted. But it's a lesson learned that media will jump in with tough questions for management long before the dust has settled.)
In an emerging crisis, identify possible lines of inquiry journalists may pursue as they scramble to find the angle that fits your situation. Connect with experts inside the company who may understand causal factors behind the crisis. Working with authorities as appropriate, help steer media away from angles that clearly are red herrings.
But be careful not to speak definitively until the facts are really known. Again and again, this trips up crisis managers -- remember: Much of what you know to be true in the first hours of a crisis will turn out to be untrue. Stay calm and stay on message even as journalists press for confirmation of the simple angle that neatly characterizes your messy situation.
- Jon Harmon