PAUL HOLMES: PR pros should take note as DC sniper crisis exposes a variety of the media's bad habits

If you want to see how the 24-hour news cycle has changed the media, look at the coverage of the recent sniper attacks in the DC area. There are lessons therein for corporate communicators who will have to deal with high-profile crises in the future.

If you want to see how the 24-hour news cycle has changed the media, look at the coverage of the recent sniper attacks in the DC area. There are lessons therein for corporate communicators who will have to deal with high-profile crises in the future.

Lesson One: There's no limit to the number of experts willing to pontificate on subjects they know little or nothing about. Profiler James Alan Fox of Northeastern University insisted the sniper held a respectable job and was a solid family man. Retired NYPD detective Richard Dietl told The New York Times the shootings were probably the work of "two skinny kids...who made a pact with each other." The New York Post's Steve Dunleavy was positive the sniper was a foreign terrorist, vowing, "When the shooter is caught, if he is not a foreigner, I will bare my derriere in Macy's window." Everyone else, on the other hand, insisted the killers would be white. In crisis, PR pros need to deal with disinformation, misinformation, speculation, and stupidity. Lesson Two: Prepare for a lot of dumb questions. Fox's Alan Colmes wondered, "Will this person strike again?" And NBC's Matt Lauer asked, "Is this the kind of person that would be taken alive?" At one press briefing, a reporter wanted to know why Chief Charles Moose had spoken "courteously, even respectfully," to the snipers. When Moose explained that he tried to speak respectfully to everyone, the reporter snapped back, "Well, the sniper's a killer, chief." What's scary is the reporter probably thought he was speaking on behalf of his readers or viewers, as if treating a serial killer rudely would have some material effect. But my personal favorite question came from CNN's Larry King, who had his priorities clear: "Would he be inclined to watch this program?" Lesson Three: Ordinary people are smarter than the media. The most encouraging thing about this case is that as the media grew more hysterical - quickly suggesting that the FBI (oh yeah, those boys never miss a thing) take over from Chief Moose and local authorities - the public remained relatively calm. This too was the result of too much airtime and not enough substance to fill it. With few new developments in the case, reporters sought something new to say, a new angle to pursue, and for a few days this was that angle. But the public seemed to understand that the investigation might take time, and while Moose wasn't particularly mediagenic - "his speech is halting; his accent provincial...he's not a dab hand at sound bites," noted Tunku Varadarajan in The Wall Street Journal - he came across as sincere, competent, and worthy of the public's trust. This is perhaps the only reassuring aspect of this whole sorry episode.
  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 15 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of www.holmesreport.com.

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