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Strategies for Working with the Mass Media During Emergencies

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*This article originally appeared in the May issue of DomPrep Journal.

By Anthony S. Mangeri, MPA, CEM, EMT, faculty member, Emergency and Disaster Management Program at American Military University

The ability of emergency management to communicate strategies and inform the public adequately during times of crisis is essential. Equally important is the value of the mass media as a partner in providing guidance on preparedness, creating risk-reduction strategies, and securing the reputation of an emergency management organization.

Media outlets have evolved into a 24/7 activity. Today’s popular media sources are distribution systems designed to collect information to convert into content. The content then is prepared to draw an audience. In addition, the audience make-up is essential to draw advertising; and advertising drives revenue.

Defining Mass Media
Disaster ReportingThe concept of “media” has changed significantly over the years. Mass media may be defined as a mechanism to distribute information to a large part of the population. Today’s mass media includes traditional systems such as television, radio, newspapers, and magazines.

The addition of the Internet has created distribution systems that include subscription e-mail lists, blogs, and social media. All of these sources of news have the ability to manipulate the community’s perception of, attitude toward, and sense of what is and is not important.

With direct access to mass media outlets and social media sites via mobile Internet, it appears that anyone with a smartphone is, in fact, a potential reporter, as well as a potential consumer. Many times, information is being posted to social media and Wikis as incidents unfold.

[Related Article: FEMA’s Fugate says Social Media is Valuable, but ‘No Tweet Stops the Bleeding’]

According to the Pew Research Center, as of 2014, approximately 90 percent of Americans own cell phones and 64 percent own smartphones with photo and video capability. A 2012 study conducted by the Pew Research Center found that approximately 50 percent of the public retrieve their news online sources. This percentage is higher than those who rely on radio and newspapers. With 71 percent of those between 18 to 29 years olds getting their news online, the trend will continue to increase.

Making News in Modern Society
Conventional wisdom says that people view media and create their own meanings from what they see and read. Today’s news consumers play an active role in the story.

News stories are written to a basic formula. Like good fiction, most news stories have a victim, a rescuer, and a villain. News stories have common elements to consider when creating the storyline. A good emergency manager or public information officer needs to keep the storyline in mind when working with the media.

[Related Article: Being Prepared to Deal with a Large-Scale Incident Requires Effective Use of Social Media]

Editors look for certain characteristics when reviewing potential stories. To be newsworthy, it may be desirable to have conflict or controversy among the story’s actors. Stories involving disasters, accidents, acts of heroism, and any story involving children and/or celebrities tend to be attractive to mass media editors. Events that are quirky, unusual, or involve animals or human interest also may have higher priority.

Using the Media as a Force Multiplier
One of the best ways for emergency managers to work with the media—as with the community as a whole—is to develop relationships and build trust and credibility with media outlets before an incident or disaster. It is important to educate both the community and the media about disasters and the steps needed to mitigate potential threats.

Reporters are not friends nor enemies, but rather gatherers of information and content for storylines. This is critical to understand when working with reporters. A good incident commander and public information officer know what information is needed to motivate an effective and appropriate community action, which can be more effective when shared through mass media outlets.

In a crisis or incident involving a portion of the community, the public’s need for information is tied to a sense of safety and security. Limited access to information may create heightened public emotions and assumptions about the incident and threat to safety. The emergency management agency’s need is to provide credible and accurate information as quickly as possible. The benchmarks of a solid public information effort include news reports that are: accurate, informative, timely, open, and empathetic.

[Related Article: Community Outreach During Disasters Improving with Social Media]

Reporters need to be professional and fair in their reporting. And, emergency managers and public information officers should not allow disagreements to dissolve into broadcasted arguments that no one can win. Responses to questions should never be casual or cavalier. Moreover, it is important for agency representatives to follow through in a timely manner when they tell reporters that they will get back to them with the information they need.

Mangeri_Anthony_headshot_croppedAbout the Author: Anthony S. Mangeri, MPA, CPM, CEM, is the director of strategic relations for fire services and emergency management and is on the faculty of the American Public University System’s School of Security and Global Studies. He has more than 30 years of experience in emergency management and public safety. During the terrorist attacks of September 2001, he served as operations chief at the New Jersey Emergency Operations Center, coordinating that state’s response to the passenger-aircraft crashes into the World Trade Center.

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