Cheers and jeers for comms after Boston bombings

Here on Boylston Street, our office literally overlooked the story.

Here on Boylston Street, our office literally overlooked the story. Upon returning after eight days locked out due to the crime-scene investigation, a colleague pointed to a photo released by the FBI. It shows my second-floor window. Below, the two accused bombers stand with their backpacks, just minutes before they walked up the block and allegedly set off the explosions that changed so many lives forever.

Having spent 26 years anchoring and reporting TV news, followed by 15 years practicing public relations and crisis management, it's been fascinating to observe how companies, news organizations, and social media-empowered citizens have acted in response to this extraordinary situation. There are things to applaud, to shake your head at, and to worry about.

Companies get it right (mostly)
Companies are getting more sophisticated about how to act in the wake of a tragedy. Yes, there was an unfortunate tweet from the food website Epicurious, connecting sorrow over the bombings with suggestions for breakfast (and yes, there was the follow-up embarrassment of Epicurious regretting that their tweet seemed offensive). But this really was the exception. More common were simple and appropriate tweets of brand regret at the tragedy. Some brands went dark for days or a week on their Twitter or Facebook marketing efforts (e.g. Boston-based New Balance) to minimize the risk of seeming tin-eared. Companies avoided the temptation to issue “updates” (they're not news organizations). But many moved within days to help victims with donations (race sponsor John Hancock helped start the One Fund Boston with a $1 million donation). Some retailers, such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Uno Chicago Grill, announced that a percentage of sales for a certain period would be donated to the fund. At this writing, One Fund Boston has exceeded $27 million, a majority from corporate donations. 

News media: tough job, some regrets
Nothing is harder to cover than a breaking news story that continues for days. Lack of sleep, combined with lack of developments, make it hard to fill a bottomless news hole. News organizations face even more pressure if they view themselves as needing to “beat” the instant and non-stop armchair quasi-reporting coming from social media posts. To be fair, there were examples of great reporting, including John Miller at CBS and Pete Williams at NBC. But there were also some real low points. CNN uselessly reported that authorities were looking for “a dark-skinned male,” then incorrectly reported an arrest. Sadly, some other major media followed suit, including Fox News, the Associated Press, and the Boston Globe. News crews swarmed the federal courthouse in Boston for what turned out to be a non-existent arraignment, leading to a bomb threat that evacuated the building. It got so bad that the FBI had to issue a statement chastising the media and urging news outlets to “verify information through appropriate official channels” before reporting it.

‘Crowd-sourced journalism' raises troubling questions
In the mid-1990s, as a Boston technology reporter privileged to cover the birth of the “consumer internet,” I cheered the citizen empowerment visible on the horizon, including the democratization of journalism. But now that it's here, it's dangerous, like a toddler learning to walk. Police-scanner reports were tweeted and drove internet speculation, evidence that “crowd-sourced journalism” has not yet accepted some of the basic rules-of-the-road that professional journalists operate by. Even scarier were the efforts of people on the social media site Reddit to act as investigators, pouring over crowd photos to try to identify a bombing suspect. Some of them even named names based on their own detective work. Amazingly, some mainstream journalists “ran” with those names, leading news crews to descend on the distraught family of a missing college student, whose sister told Mother Jones, “The hardest part of this was how far from any actual evidence there actually was, and how quickly and how painfully this traveled.” In a telling comment, Noah Rubin Brier, a writer who follows technology and the millennial generation, blogged, “Watching the new tweets pop up, I got a sense that the content didn't matter as much as the feeling of being involved, the thrill of the hunt if you will.”

The reality, of course, is that the content matters a lot. It's a lesson that armchair journalists “broadcasting” online during a crisis need to learn. As Reddit's general manager said in an apology a week after the Marathon bombing, “Especially when the stakes are high we must strive to show good judgment…”

Perhaps professionally trained journalists or trusted news organizations will someday serve as a trusted filter for the social media data-stream and help us separate fact from fiction.  Unfortunately, coverage of the Marathon bombings suggests that model is wishful thinking, because some of the pros act like amateurs too.

Mike Lawrence is chief reputation officer and EVP at Cone Communications.

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