By Scott Sobel, MA, Media Psychology; President, Media & Communications Strategies. This post originally appeared here on Bulldog Reporter.
As a society, as a nation, we are now decompressing from the horrific events and outcomes surrounding the Boston Marathon bombing and the chemical explosion in West, Texas. As public relations practitioners who have to prepare for all kinds and degrees of crisis events, we need to take accounting of how those events were handled or mishandled by first responders, police, medical teams, political spokespersons, the news media and us.
The good news is that by and large the PR people and spokespersons who I witnessed did a laudable job of being as even-handed as possible, attempting not to speculate and looked for calming information that attempted to keep the public from panic. The more experienced and responsible journalists did the same in the face of the constant live reporting which showcases the best in journalism and also put a spotlight on the very worst reportage.
The ironic bad news is that we are collectively getting better at handling these kinds of terrorism or mass disasters because unfortunately it appears we have had to weather more of these incidents or, at least, have had more of these incidents reported 24/7 by the ubiquitous media, both mainstream and social. We are now becoming practiced at dealing with disaster.
Observation. Almost immediately after both tragedies erupted we would hear facts and warnings from official spokespersons and then we would hear, e.g., – from a Boston Celtics spokesperson, “Our Celtics family and our fans join all Bostonians in demonstrating our city’s great strength by coming together to stand as one to get through this difficult time,” or, from a West, Texas first responder, “Everybody knows everybody. We know people who didn’t make it, so we are all here for each other.”
It is commonsense to look for that silver lining in the face of chaos and danger but PR professionals need to make sure the silver lining comments and strategies are planned for proactively and not ad hoc and reactively. If you do fashion a silver lining plan, it should not be created as an afterthought but as an integral part of the news and healing process. We all need to know that there is order and potential good outcomes to help us balance our emotions and reactions. The silver lining plan is good and essential PR.
Again, balancing the bad with the good is needed, not a PR luxury, especially doing a service for families and young people who need to know there is order out of chaos. It is our responsibility as communications professionals to build on the good societal and personal frameworks so we can weather the inevitable bad, or what some describe as evil events. There is additionally an expectation of balanced communications from our clients and stakeholders. For more of a structured psychological perspective, consider the following comments soon after the Boston Bombing from Touro University Worldwide’s Media Psychologist Darlene Mininni, PhD.:
The Boston Bombing: The Media & What Kids Need To Know
The round-the-clock media coverage of the events in Boston is understandable. Our anxious minds find something soothing about information—even if the news is scary—because we want desperately to understand what’s happening. We want to know that everything will be okay. We want to know the bad guys have been caught.
At the same time, the media’s relentless analysis can give the impression— particularly to children—that the world is a terrible and frightening place, and we are all just one-step away from harm when we walk out our front door.
For that reason, it’s important for us to highlight the positive aspects of this story as well. Not in a Pollyanna-way that suggests everything is fine, but in a real way. It’s necessary to talk about the people who have opened their homes to others, sent food to first responders and provided an outpouring of support and kindness to those in need.
A popular post on Facebook this week is a quote from the beloved children’s television host Mr. Rogers:
When I was a boy, and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’
My daughter was 3-1/2 when two planes deliberately crashed into the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers in New York City. It was a devastating experience that traumatized our country. As a former New Yorker, I was deeply affected by the horrible images I saw of my hometown.
I thought long and hard about how to explain this event my preschool-age daughter in a way that her young mind could grasp. I worried that the way I described the events would influence her view of the world. I finally told her, “A few people did a bad thing and hit the buildings with their planes. And now thousands of people are helping to make it better.”
I hoped that explanation would ease her into the realities of life. Yes, sometimes bad things happen. Really bad. But there’s also good in the world. A lot of good.
What to tell your children about these events will differ depending on their age:
- Young children should be shielded from violent or graphic imagery on television and the Internet. They need to know that they are safe, secure and protected by the adults around them.
- Older children might have questions about the event and why it happened. Answer their questions and explain the details without getting overly sensational or frightening.
And keep in mind that we adults can be easily overwhelmed by the constant barrage of news, too. For me, as I follow the media’s coverage, I am reminded that terrible things happen in life. I grieve for the families and the community affected.
And then I think about the courage, bravery and kindness of the people who helped. I think about the good in this story because it’s always there.
As Dr. Mininni underlines, we all have a need to know what is happening surrounding these tragedies, and I submit, we have the same need to know about all kinds of news that generally has a negative component with conflict between the bad and good aspects of the storyline.
The need to know is, of course, the primary driver in our communications business, period. We have to be prepared to accurately tell all parts of any story and not overlook the good news because some might think it is “soft.” The silver lining component of crisis PR is a legitimate part of the story when told as part of the overall narrative context and when properly prioritized. I am not advocating having an opening statement that emphasize good news when a bad news story is breaking but there is no reason at all not to end that kind of statement with a silver lining comment. Look and plan for the hope element…look for the helpers.
Scott Sobel is president of Media & Communications Strategies, Inc., a Washington, DC-based public relations firm that manages reputation and communications challenges of all kinds worldwide. www.macstrategies.com. He is also a former corporate public relations practitioner and major market and TV network investigative journalist with a Media Psychology MA from Touro University Worldwide www.TUW.edu.