MEDIA DISASTERS: Media Roundup - Agencies rethink PR strategies inwake of tragedy

The September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, DC put many PR

plans on hold, and the amount of coverage devoted to the incidents has

left agencies wondering how to approach the media, if at all. David Ward


While the attention of the American public continues to focus on the

tragic September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon,

PR firms and their clients are quietly assessing how to proceed with the

media given the change in circumstances.

In the short term, PR professionals acknowledge that reaching out to the

media will be a tough job. Not only will the bulk of news coverage be

focused on the tragedy, but other news and developments not directly

tied to the tragedy will seem much less important to journalists.

Most PR people agree that no event - not Oklahoma City, not the 1989 Bay

Area earthquake, and not even the 1963 assassination of President John

F. Kennedy - matches the magnitude of September 11.

"Even when talking about something like Pearl Harbor, you can't do a

comparison because you're not dealing with the same media environment

today," says PainePR founder David Paine. "This is an unprecedented


I don't think there's anybody in our current generation of practitioners

who can speak to what the consequences will be for clients over the next

30 to 60 days."

"The media is like everyone else," notes Fred Cook, Golin/Harris

managing director, Western region. "It's very difficult to focus on the

more mundane aspects of their jobs when there's this crisis playing


And no one knows quite how long these terrorist attacks will dominate

the news cycle. When PainePR analyzed the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma

City federal building, it found that coverage peaked the third day after

the event, and didn't significantly drop off until about two weeks


After one month, coverage was off 70% from its peak, but that still

meant it was taking up a huge portion of the available news hole.

Few people know what the coming weeks will bring in terms of media


Already, there are indications that the economy is entering a period of

unparalleled turbulence as airlines, financial companies, and leisure

firms all struggle to deal with the aftermath.

There's also the looming prospect of war. "Are we going to have a media

climate where CNN is going to regularly break in with reports of rocket

attacks against other nations? And how are companies going to operate in

that climate?" asks Paine.

The media melange

In times of crisis, the public inevitably turns to major national

broadcast networks NBC, CBS, and ABC, as well as cable outlets such as

CNN, while major print publications like Time, Newsweek, The New York

Times, The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times provide analysis

and perspective going forward.

But gone are the days when the nation as a whole turned to a single news

icon like CBS anchor Walter Cronkite for reassurance in troubled


Now there is an ever-changing mix of journalists in the national

spotlight, including author and New York Times Middle Eastern specialist

Thomas Friedman and CNN terrorism analyst Peter Bergen, who interviewed

Osama bin Laden in 1997.

In the days following the tragedy, some agencies took the direct

approach, and discreetly and respectfully sounded out journalists to

find out exactly what they did and didn't want from PR execs in the

short term. "The media was saying, 'Don't come at us and pitch; don't be

your normal proactive, aggressive selves unless your client is relevant

to this horrible tragedy,'" says Bill Meyers, co-general manager at the

San Francisco office of Blanc & Otus.

Fortunately for Meyers, Blanc & Otus had two clients that the media was

interested in: Hotwire (an online travel website) and Identix (a

biometrics company with fingerprint and airport security technology).

Both got calls from reporters almost immediately after the plane


"We had long sessions about how to respond to queries," says Meyers. "We

counseled Identix that this was not a branding effort. You're there

strictly as a resource and commentator to help make sense of this."

Back to business

Despite the magnitude of the attacks, by the Friday of that week,

non-related news stories began to appear in the back pages of some

newspapers as journalists not directly covering the tragedy once again

began accepting pitches. "We're finding that trade journalists are going

back to business as usual much more quickly than some of the

general-interest reporters," notes Jon Haber, SVP/partner with

Fleishman-Hillard's Washington, DC office.

But in many ways, the traditional rules of media relations are out the

window for the time being. "Our counsel is really to have your ear to

the ground," says Kim Kumiega, GM of crisis and issues management for

Edelman's Chicago office. "Media departments have to be monitoring

coverage on a day-by-day basis. We have to let our clients know that

even The Wall Street Journal isn't where you think The Wall Street

Journal is."

Changing with the times

Kumiega also suggests that every PR firm and their clients reevaluate

any and all upcoming messages for appropriateness. "It's not just the

mood...but the language that you might use," she adds. "Even words like

'assault' or 'hijack.' We really have to scan what we've written to make

sure that nothing is offensive moving forward."

For some companies, the events of September 11 dramatically altered

their corporate plans. PainePR client XM Radio made a $1 billion

investments in placing two satellites in orbit, and was to set to

formally roll-out its satellite radio service on September 12 with media

events in Washington, DC and San Diego. They are now on hold

indefinitely, but Paine adds, "They've got to launch their company, and

they know that."

Both advertising and PR are going to play a key role in XM Radio's

launch, but the tone is being adjusted. Billboards carrying the image of

music records flying through the air above the tagline "Incoming" are

being redone. "They understood that immediately," says Paine. "They'll

be making substantial changes in their campaign - both print and

broadcast - going forward."

That situation is likely to be repeated by marketing and advertising

departments around the US, as well as internationally. Cook says

Golin/Harris is already working with clients on changing their holiday

marketing and PR messages. "This event changes the tone and the feel of

the holiday season in a big way," he says. "Anything that's overtly

commercial is not going to be well received by either the media or by

the consumer."

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