Public Relations: Is it Really Media Overkill?: Understanding the media
John F. Kennedy Jr. and I attended Outward Bound survivalist school in Maine in 1977, but I never saw him because we went on different dates. Nevertheless – like many others – I mourned his death as though I personally knew him and his family. I said to an acquaintance, “Too bad about John Kennedy, isn’t it?” His response?
“I think the media are overdoing it!” Others said it too.
We’ve heard complaints of media overkill before – during the OJ Simpson trial and after Princess Diana’s death. Why is it so many of us say we want one thing from the media, but they give us something else? Let’s think about it.
Before becoming a crisis consultant and media coach – when I was a reporter – I held a workshop on understanding news media. I asked each person to pretend to be a TV news director and deal with this scenario:
A head-on collision on a major local highway kills 2 people person and snarls traffic. News photographers from your station – and your competitors – videotape the wrecked cars for the evening news. However, police have not located the next of kin to notify them of the deaths of their loved ones. If you show the tape, families might recognize the cars and learn the horrible truth from TV, not authorities. As news director, even though you would report the story, would you withhold showing the wreck itself until the family is informed?
90% of the people in the workshop quickly said they would NOT show the wreck. They were adamant that protecting the family would be the right thing to do. I tested their resolve.
I asked them to switch roles and assume the position of an average citizen.
You are driving home from work and are gridlocked in that same accident that killed 2 people and snarled traffic on a major highway. After a long delay you slowly pass by the crumpled cars, paramedics, and TV news crews. You finally arrive home just before the evening TV newscast. What will you do?
All of the workshop participants said they would turn on the news to learn about the wreck that disrupted their commute. I asked what they would do if their favorite TV news program did NOT show video of the crash. All admitted they would change channels to find a newscast that DID run the video. Importantly, when I asked how many would no longer trust their favorite newscast to show important video in the future, most agreed their confidence would be shaken.
The group seemed genuinely surprised that they held such contradictory beliefs. On the one hand, as news executive, they would willingly withhold news to protect the public. On the other, as average citizen, they would readily seek news they wanted regardless the source. Furthermore, they would penalize their favorite newscast for not providing that coverage.
Their inconsistency deepened with further questions. I told each to resume the role of TV news director and answer this question. “Since most of you would withhold video of a wreck that killed two people to protect families, would you still withhold the video if the crash killed THREE people?” Slightly fewer people said yes, but it was still a slight majority. “Killed FIVE people?” At this level, most decided they would show the video. “What if it were a plane crash?” Most agreed they’d show that too in spite of concern for the victims’ families.
The group seemed uncomfortable. They realized they would sacrifice the family’s rights if the story were sufficiently important. They also found they each had a different sensitivity threshold for when to run or hold the video.
Their most powerful insight, however, was realizing that if their favorite TV newscast withheld video from them, even for a noble reason, they would look elsewhere for it and not trust that newscast as much in the future.
This happened for real in Philadelphia in 1986 when a police assault on a barricaded protest group resulted in the deaths of 11 people and a fire that destroyed more than 60 homes. A top-rated TV newscast previously accused of being too sensational tried to moderate its coverage of this tragedy to be more responsible. The station reported only critical moments, not everything that happened. Competitors, meantime, went wall-to-wall with coverage. The result? The well-meaning station’s ratings – and revenues – plummeted as viewers turned elsewhere to get the story. The public did not want – and did not reward – “doing the right thing.” It was a sobering and expensive lesson on pulling back coverage of a major event.
So, the next time you see seemingly excess media coverage you might want to paraphrase Pogo and say to yourself, “We have met the media and they are us.”