Crisis Management: Get to Know Reporters – A Personal Story: Crisis avoidance
Business people often despise or at least distrust the news media. As a crisis management consultant – and former journalist – I too occasionally criticize reporters in this column. Some have an anti-business bias and believe they are on a “mission from God” to save us from ourselves. However, it would be helpful – even beneficial – for you to remember not only that they are human beings, but that you should get to know them.
We often forget that most journalists are well-intended professionals sometimes even personally consumed by events they report. I still remember former local TV news anchor James Brown, exhausted from covering Hurricane Floyd floods, breaking down in the studio while describing wrecked lives.
This bond between journalist and subject is on my mind because of events in 1979 when Iran seized more than 50 American hostages at the US Embassy in Teheran. As the 444 days of captivity played out in world headlines, I reported the extended terror for the family of embassy guard Rocky Sickmann from Krakow, Missouri.
St. Louis reporters and national media jockeyed to get close to the Sickmanns and the other hostage families. We hustled for exclusive views of national trauma through their eyes. Some personal remembrances of the family:
- Landing our TV chopper in their backyard on a dark snowy night to get reaction to a presidential press conference.
- Accompanying them to the State Department and White House for hostage updates from the Carter administration.
- Converging on them outside Iran’s Washington Embassy where they had gone for clues to Rocky’s release.
- Lining up outside their house for comment after a U.S. rescue attempt failed disastrously.
- Watching them watch Ronald Reagan replace Jimmy Carter on the very day Rocky and the other hostages gained freedom.
- Traveling from West Point to Washington to Krakow with them and their returning son.
- Taping Rocky’s first extended interview about his captivity – including mock executions – and then choppering the tape back to St. Louis in a blinding snowstorm for prime time airing.
The intensity bred closeness. I felt like family. How close? I had an embarrassing shouting match with a network reporter whom I thought was needlessly exploiting the Sickmanns. She told me to get out of her face. I was probably out of line.
As we journalists competed ferociously for exclusivity, I became acutely aware of the toll we were exacting from the relatives and, eventually, from Rocky himself. A wide-eyed generous young man, he shared his precious new freedom selflessly with parents, sisters, neighbors, and media. That left little time for his long-suffering fiancée Jill.
I was getting the stories I wanted, but our unrelenting assault bothered me. I looked for a way to shield Rocky and – truth be told – probably ease my own guilt. To give them distance from it all, my wife and I invited Rocky and Jill to St. Louis for dinner and a quiet night at our home.
At a quaint Italian restaurant just three weeks removed from confinement in Iran, Rocky revealed more about his ordeal. Conversely, Jill, Linda, and I told Rocky what happened at home in his absence. No notes were taken. No reporting done. This was private. Rocky’s face was famous, so the restaurant owner helped us shelter him from passersby. Most diners gave him space anyway.
Afterward we drove the hand-holding Jill and Rocky to our house. Linda gave Jill a nightgown, and I loaned Rocky pajamas. We lighted a midwinter fire and handed the young couple a scrapbook of clippings telling more of how Rocky’s family too had suffered during his imprisonment. For the first time, he saw how his parents had been prisoners of events, and of the media.
Jill and Rocky huddled with the headlines in our living room and talked quietly, peacefully, of that awful separation that had ended for them only a few days earlier. Linda and I got up to leave them alone. As we were about to go we noticed Rocky’s bare feet propped up alongside Jill’s. The skin was blistered and peeling. We asked why. He said that he walked barefoot through most of his incarceration, and the sores were from wearing shoes again. This poignant exchange was yet another reminder of our guest’s nightmare. Again, it was personal. A conversation among friends. The reporter’s notebook remained in another room.
What does this story have to do with you who must deal with reporters and perhaps have even been burned by them? Get acquainted with them if you can. No promises, the story is still paramount, but you may be pleasantly surprised at what happens if you know each another well.