PR Training

Breakout: Building Trust During a Media Maelstrom

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California Wildfires

It turns out that at the very moment we were attending this session, thousands of Californians were being evacuated from their homes.  The Red Cross was sending out messages via Twitter, telling people where they could find shelter and what they needed to do.  They also were using their regular channels, including a purpose-built blog, as well as local radio and television.  But even local media were turning to social media platforms to get the word out.

Gerald Baron is CEO and Founder of AudienceCentral, which makes the online crisis management software Public Information Emergency Response (PIER), and is also the author of the blog CrisisBlogger and the book Now Is Too Late 2, was the session presenter.

Building Trust in a Crisis

Baron said that you have to do two things during a crisis situation to build trust:

  1. Do the right things
  2. Communicate them well

Communicating well includes getting the word out fast; communicating directly; and communicating honestly and transparently.

He emphasized the importance of having some kind of remote Internet-based platform to allow effective communication between internal stakeholders and the external community.

During Katrina, the Coast Guard used an online platform to effectively communicate the work they were doing.  As a result of their ability to do a good job and communicate effectively about what they were doing, they were given an additional $1.7 million in funding, while the Department of Homeland Security budget was cut by 15 percent. 

Building trust has never been harder

  • We have an exceptionally high standards for ethical and social performance–and expectation of failure
  • The media and the public as “regulators” controlling the license to operate
  • Highly competitive Mainstream Media (MSM) competing for dwindling audiences based on immediacy and infotainment

Santiago Canyon fire at Lake Mission Viejo (10-23-07 at 8PM)Audiences are accustomed to instant news, infotainment and the availability of the Internet, which have led to faster turnaround times on information, the ability to have direct communication with stakeholders and a demand for more transparency by companies.

What Has Changed in News

While newsrooms are cutting staff, we’ve added 60 million new “citizen journalists” over the past few years.  Bloggers are eyewitness and insiders and therefore great sources to the news media.  For instance, a cell phone video of an explosion, or any other news event, can be recorded by a citizen-journalist blogger on a camera phone, then picked up by the news media and played over and over again.  Baron recommended reading The News About the News to discover how the Wall Street model of media needs to be changed.

What Has Changed in Infotainment

News adopted the melodrama formula of entertainment: the bad hat company, the white hat activist, and the maiden in distress, or whatever is threatening the public good.  60 minutes marked the start this philosophy called infotainment.  And with the advent of reality television the lines between journalism and entertainment become even more murky.

What Has Changed with the Internet

We live in a post-media world with high expectations for direct and immediate communication.  Social media is creating new styles, formats and expectations for interactive communication.  The concept of audience is going away, the term is now “friend.” The Internet has allowed for the development of large scale networks of these friends, making every story global.

The Demands

Speed, I want it now.  Yes, right now.

Directness, I want it directly from you to me, not mediated or through someone else, and I expect to interact with you directly.

Transparency, give me the straight story because if you hide something I will find out and then I will never trust you again.

We have to get over the idea that the media is the audience, they are merely the means to talk with the audience and that is evolving fast.  Now with the expectation of direct communication our ability to react is even more challenged.  If your company has decided not to deal with bloggers because “the approval process is such that one can’t keep up with them.”  The answer is, “You better figure out how to fix the policy and change it.”

The bloggers are at the front lines of this battle.

Multiple Channels of Communication

An adequate communication plan will utilize multiple channels of delivery and include a plan to host the crisis communication platform offsite from the company to allow for continuity in a crisis.

Baron pointed out that the Websites of the major players, such as the Port of New Jersey and New York went down, the FBI had millions of hits and two minute download and CNN only stayed up because they stripped the pages bare to avoid delayed download times.

He stresses an integrated approach that used a number of communication channels such as texting, Internet, special Websites and telephone. Communicate in all of these modes simultaneously

How to Narrow the Gap

There are a number of barriers standing in the way as many companies pursue these new tools and ways of communicating.  These run the gamut from sensational to mundane, but include such roadblocks as attorney review, executives traveling, key decision makers unavailable, slow web update, delayed vetting, too many approvals needed, IT control over Internet, corporate policies and corporate speak (which reduces credibility)

There are four ways to increase trust and cut down on the red tape. 

4 Ps of Crisis Response

Policies: define winning, we will be the first and best source of the news

Plans: who does what when?

People: preparing those who will determine success or failure (drill, evaluate and drill)

Platform: what tools are needed to enable success

  • Collaboration to work together
  • 24/ access, urgent communication does not keep regular hours
  • All tools available on a Web platform, with no dependence on technical resources
  • Full spectrum to provide information via push, pull and interactive communication, to both media and other stakeholders

Baron feels that the day of press releases is over, most media just want they bullets, video and images

Baron’s Blog:

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About the author

Kami Watson Huyse


  • Kami,

    Thanks for doing such an incredible job with this site—and for covering the conference presentations.

    I devoured every word of the above California fire story. I plan on spreading the word on our site soon. Even though the conference is over, readers could get so much out of it.

    Mark Ragan

  • Thanks Mark for the kudos, I think it is incredibly important work that the Red Cross and others are doing. I also wrote an op-ed expanding on this last week in the Bulldog Reporter. I hope you do spread the word at MyRagan.

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