LETTER FROM AMERICA: US sniper media hysteria has lessons for us all

If you want to understand how the 24-hour news cycle has changed the media, take a look at the coverage of the recent sniper attacks in Maryland and Virginia. There are lessons for corporate communicators who will have to deal with high-profile crises in future.

Lesson number 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 that the sniper held down a respectable job and was a solid family man. Steve Dunleavy, writing in the New York Post, 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 times of crisis, PROs need to be ready to deal with disinformation, misinformation, speculation and stupidity.

Lesson number two: you'll have to answer a lot of really dumb questions.'Will this person strike again?' Fox's Alan Colmes wanted to know. NBC's Matt Lauer wanted to know 'Is this the kind of person that would be taken alive?'

At one press briefing, a reporter wanted to know why police 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.'

But my favourite question came from CNN's Larry King, whose priorities were clear: 'Would he be inclined to watch this programme?'

Lesson number three: ordinary people are smarter than the media. The most encouraging thing about this case is that as the media grew more hysterical, the public remained relatively calm. It didn't take long before reporters started calling for someone new to head the investigation, suggesting that the FBI take over from Moose and the other locals.

With few new developments in the case, reporters had to find something new to say, some 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 was not particularly mediagenic - as Tunku Varadarajan noted in The Wall Street Journal 'his speech is halting; his accent provincial ... he's not a dab hand at soundbites' - he came across as sincere and competent, and the public trusted him.

This is perhaps the only reassuring aspect of this whole sorry episode.

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