Breaking News & Getting It Right

Establishing mutual trust between opposing groups in a time-sensitive environment can be a huge challenge. Trust and communication gaps exist between news media and public information officers. It is important to understand the different operational procedures, the roles and responsibilities, and the effects that each stakeholder has during a large-scale incident.

On 19 January 2016, DomPrep hosted a roundtable discussion with information-sharing subject matter experts from various disciplines to address the trust and communication gaps between news media and public information officers (PIOs) during incidents of nationwide interest. Being able to get information out fast, but accurately, is a primary goal for both groups. This article summarizes the January discussion and provides key takeaways that are addressed in other articles within this “Breaking News” edition of the DomPrep Journal.

Information Flow

The National Incident Management System (NIMS) and the Incident Command System (ICS) establish roles and responsibilities of various stakeholders during an incident. However, as a significant incident materializes, the influx of national media representatives can add extra challenges, especially considering that local media are already reporting from the affected area. At such times, the “span of control explodes,” said Connor Scott, deputy mayor of Baltimore City. He suggested that integrating news media into the NIMS process or creating an ICS for media could help facilitate the process.

As an event begins to unfold, the information flow – its content and sources – is critical. Each stakeholder plays a unique role in crisis communication. For social media, Emily Allen, digital engagement coordinator for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency (MEMA), explained how researching geolocation and hashtags could help determine the validity of the information by determining whether these reports are originating from the scene of the incident or a remote location. Similarly, journalists must be able to rapidly verify images and messages before publication release.

The balance between validated information and breaking news can be difficult. However, what the PIOs know and what they can discuss do not always coincide. PIOs and reporters many times share the same role, but may not be able to tell the same story. Making matters worse, the absence or delay of validated information often creates inaccurate reporting. Daniel Hetlage, who is the deputy director of the Media Division’s Office of Public Affairs at U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, stated that, “Although pre-established relationships are good, due to the numbers of media in one’s portfolio, one-on-one relationships are not always possible. Many call themselves media, but may just have a blog or Twitter account with a small number of followers, so I tend to triage information sources and respond to those with the greatest impact where possible. That doesn’t necessarily mean the largest outlet, as local media are in a story for the long haul, while networks quickly move on to the next big story.” Of course, some senior PIOs prefer the comfort of having relationships with particular news media, but he warns that, “There should be a healthy friction between media and PIOs knowing that there will be times when our goals are at odds.”

Subject Matter Experts – Spokespersons & Analysts

Subject matter experts (SMEs) serve different purposes: some are good for context and some for the incident. Anthony S. Mangeri, director of strategic relations for fire services and emergency management and faculty member of American Public University System, pointed out that, “An SME may not be the right SME.” On one hand, people at the state or federal level may not know the details of local policies but, on the other, local agencies may not have the training to go in front of the camera. Each agency and journalist must find the right SME for each incident. When a local story becomes national or international news, the context and other aspects of the incident may not be understood. In such cases, SMEs can create guidance to share with the media.

According to Col. Cedric Leighton, USAF (Ret.) and chairman of Cedric Leighton Associates LLC, even within the analyst community, the roles are different. Analysts are not part of the operational command and should not be. Rather, they provide their views of the event, but are not official spokespersons for any agency. Contractual arrangements can define what the analyst is entitled to do. Since the media pays some analysts, it is important to carefully consider what they are being asked. For example, when covering the Paris attacks in November 2015 for CNN, Leighton was an expert on terrorism. Additionally, CNN benefited from the fact that he was also an expert on France, but that is somewhat unusual, as most analysts cover only one or two areas deeply. When engaged in a crisis, spokespersons represent agencies and analysts work for media outlets or private organizations such as think tanks.

Agencies like the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) address complicated issues that have a lot of uncertainty. “If we don’t say it first, someone else will say it for us,” said William Hall, HHS’s deputy assistant secretary for public affairs. Thus, HHS disseminates basic information as quickly as possible and relies on experts across the agencies for additional information. HHS also funds and works with individuals in universities and research centers that have a lot of knowledge.

Politics, Speed & Story

Political agendas, perspectives, as well as the pace and speed for consumption of critical information have replaced the traditional “news cycle” with a 24/7 environment. This environment is dominated by SMEs, “breaking news,” individual perspectives, and agendas. Leighton explained that there are two types of SMEs, those with and those without an agenda. When people drive agendas, they may push for reporters or PIOs to tell a story that is not true. Representatives from both groups need to be prepared to deal with this scenario. From the PIO view, PIO Edward McDonough of MEMA shared how his agency partners with media to help them make good decisions, especially considering that the mainstream media reports reach more people than social media pushed by agency PIOs.

In addition, five objective stories would be five different stories because people bring their own lives to the report. “Impartiality does not mean everyone will tell the same story,” said McDonough. When dealing with life safety issues, though, it can be difficult to stay ahead of the media, as they are often in analysis mode while agencies are still in response mode. For example, before the end of the first night of civil unrest in Baltimore in June 2015, media and SMEs were already analyzing what time the mayor notified the governor. Such information “clutter” makes it harder to address the situation and maintain effective relationships.

On the media side, JJ Green, national security correspondent at WTOP, and Robert Stallworth, Law Enforcement Education Coordinator at American Military University and traffic anchor/reporter for WTOP-FM, acknowledged that sometimes there is impatience to get the story out and this issue needs to be addressed. Even journalists who have the highest intentions can get a bad reputation, “Agendas and politics are fine, but not for a reporter while covering an event. Objective journalists don’t have a side,” Green said. Journalists have an important job to do, but the facts can get lost when they do not take the time to verify their sources and information.

Although there needs to be a relationship between media and PIOs, they should not have a partnership. Journalists must remain impartial when advising the public. PIOs can feel pressure on both sides – from their agencies and the media – to quickly post information, but this can lead to errors. Anna Rose, PIO for the United States Park Police, expressed concern about accountability as she balances maintaining media relationships despite being often misquoted. She further addressed the importance of being able to say, “We are working to get the requested information for you and will get back to you at ___ time, or as soon as we can.”

During a crisis, journalists want information immediately, but PIOs may need to release information on a different timeline. There is only one chance to send the right public message, so ensuring the information is accurate should be the priority. The Federal Bureau of Investigtion’s management of the San Bernardino, California, shooting was raised as an example of information flow in a chaotic situation being deliberately slowed to ensure accuracy, consistency, and confidence to communities immediately impacted.

Scott agreed that accuracy is the top priority, but suggested that PIOs need to increase the speed of information sharing and media response to better meet the expectations of their communities, which drive news media to provide information. With the dominance of the 24-hour news cycle, roundtable participants supported theea and need for PIOs to have basic information pre-scripted before an incident occurs. This might include worksheets and forms with specific information that can be quickly added and check-off lists to increase speed and enhance coordination between stakeholders.

McDonough added that minor factual errors (honest mistakes) could be survived when they are corrected as soon as possible. However, if errors are made with small events, they are likely to occur for big incidents, so it is important to correct them immediately. Nobody wants to make mistakes, but they inevitably happen. How agencies and journalists manage them is the key. One suggestion is for agencies to record their own interviews to ensure accuracy if they are misquoted in news reports. With the 24-hour news cycle, there are plenty of opportunities to correct mistakes and clarify misconceptions.

Images Matter

Images play a huge role in crisis communication because one image can set the agenda. As such, PIOs should build relationships with videographers and photographers as well as journalists. Like all photojournalists, Peter Roof, director of photography at Alt Gobo MediaWorks LLC, has to be able to see the news, “We want to be safe, but we want to see something.” However, in some cases, PIOs try to control the message by expanding perimeters and selectively placing reporters at remote locations. One reason for this is a matter of trust – trust in where the information goes and how it is managed.

Unfortunately, even when 99 percent of journalists are trying to do a good job, the other 1 percent makes it harder for everyone. Images may tell a great story, but they are not always put into the right context. To avoid this pitfall, Hetlage makes sure that his agency’s cameras are also on scene to avoid sensationalism.

Gripping news stories provide great “infotainment,” but do not help agencies get accurate messaging to the public. For example at HHS, Hall noted that, although the evacuation of two workers who contracted Ebola in Africa was extremely controlled, the disease was more difficult to contract than it was portrayed in pictures and videos. In order to calm public fear, images must match the message. However, he also noted the propensity for media and social media to tell the public to be scared, but they do not acknowledge that sometimes fear is okay and expected. Managing that fear happens by checking information and learning more about the facts.

Managing Relationships

Careful consideration must be made when balancing the type of incident with the type of media presentation needed. Green shared his fundamentals about relationships, which he described as the “Three Rs: relationships, respect, and right.” He suggested that PIOs could build stronger relationships with the media by: reducing leaks; going through a vetting process; increasing outreach and education; avoiding those without good intentions; treating each journalist as an individual; recognizing that the cameraperson is just as important as the reporter; and simply doing the right thing.

To build strong relationships, reporters and PIOs also need to understand the workplace pressures that each experiences. When there are lulls in breaking news stories, the routine becomes news. These times are opportunities to help educate the media to understand the bigger picture. Speed with accuracy and responding to all media whether there is an answer or not builds trust. “Don’t leave them hanging; everybody deserves a response, even if to say you don’t yet have any information,” said Hetlage.

Although journalists and other media representatives may not have the time to participate in multidiscipline trainings, they should be invited to the table. In addition to building relationships, Local Emergency Planning Committees provide an excellent venue to help media gain insight and understanding of the challenges and key issues, which include response strategies, responder perspectives, as well as planning and response concerns.

McDonough stated that MEMA has had a good experience by embedding news representatives into its emergency operations center. Having the opportunity to engage with a reputable reporter is worth the effort, so reporters should not be dismissed. Burning bridges on either side has consequences, so it is important to train and educate PIOs and journalists to work together during a crisis. The “gotcha game” – even once – can affect future relationships.

Thomas J. Lockwood

Thomas J. Lockwood has been Senior Advisor for Credentialing Interoperability in the Department of Homeland Security's Screening Coordination Office since April 2007 and is a member of the department's senior leadership team. Previously, he was the director of the Office of National Capital Region Coordination (ONCRC). Prior to his DHS service, he was the homeland security advisor and deputy director of Maryland's Office for Homeland Security, where he served on several executive boards including the U.S. Attorney Maryland District's Anti-Terrorism Task Force, the Department of Homeland Security's National Capital Region Senior Policy Group, the Maryland Maritime Security Group, the Maryland Terrorism Forum, the Washington Council of Government's National Capital Region Emergency Preparedness Council, and the National Emergency Management Association's Homeland Security Committee.

Catherine L. Feinman

Catherine L. Feinman, M.A., joined Domestic Preparedness in January 2010. She has more than 35 years of publishing experience and currently serves as editor of the Domestic Preparedness Journal,, and The Weekly Brief. She works with writers and other contributors to build and create new content that is relevant to the emergency preparedness, response, and recovery communities. She received a bachelor’s degree in International Business from the University of Maryland, College Park, and a master’s degree in Emergency and Disaster Management from American Military University.



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