Old timers love to lament the deteriorating standards of modern-day journalism, where the quest for online speed and being first often trumps the need for accuracy and fairness. Where once we had Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow, today we have Nancy Grace and Chelsea Clinton.
Clearly, the Fourth Estate just ain't what it used to be.
Or is it?
A friend of mine’s recent experience in reporting the death of a member of a high profile family yielded a number of surprises, not the least of which was the extent to which the media -- online media -- went in avoiding mistakes in their coverage.
Here’s what happened.
Last week, the son of a prominent client family was killed in a private plane crash, and the PR counselor was called in to consult. These are three of the more surprising PR guidelines he observed in the 21st century media’s handling of death.
#1. Media won't confirm until you do.
The plane, with only the pilot aboard, crashed at 8 a.m., with the pilot pronounced dead at the scene. The Associated Press and TV media called within 20 minutes, seeking confirmation that the passenger-pilot was, indeed, the famous family member to whom the plane was registered. The answer from the PR person was – as should be the immediate answer to any media inquiry -- "We will get back to you."
After confirming with the family that the deceased was, sadly, the plane’s owner, it was agreed that no one from the family would “confirm” the pilot’s identity until all of the members of the man’s immediate family were notified. Since these people were all in different places, the notification might take some time.
For the next three hours, the media continued to call the spokesman for confirmation. Some called four or five times and grew testy. But -- and here’s the main and surprising point -- none of them, not one news organization among the 15 or so on the assignment, jumped the gun to speculate as to the identity of the individual. They waited until the family was ready to confirm the identity.
At about 11 a.m. -- a full three hours after the report of the crash -- the family confirmed the identity, and the news went public on online news and newspaper sites and in television and radio bulletins.
#2. Responsible media won’t abide inaccuracies.
Once the news was out, the media began its mad dash to secure details of who, what, why, when, where and how.
Now speed mattered. The family spokesman tried to accommodate with background information about the deceased. This sufficed for most, but the more responsible publications were more demanding.
The New York Times, for example, refused to identify the deceased online, until it was certain someone from the family had identified the body. When, in haste, the Times was given the wrong age for the deceased, it immediately issued an online correction, attributing the error to "incorrect information relayed by a family spokesman."
So even in the age of the Internet, accuracy, at least some media leaders were still sticklers for accuracy.
#3. Write it down.
While it’s always preferable in such tragic circumstances to "speak" to the media in human terms, rather than “reading” them a statement, you must have a written message to communicate.
In this case, the family was too distraught to say anything, so they entrusted the spokesman to convey their sadness. While the spokesman spoke “extemporaneously” to a number of media, he never wavered from the words on the printed statement, which was distributed to the media.
Newspapers and online media paraphrased from the statement, and television ran the statement verbatim as screen copy. The written statement, in other words, was obligatory to getting across the family’s feelings.
A week after the tragic crash, as with most news events in today’s 24/7 media environment, the incident had essentially run its course and the media had moved on. But at least from a PR standpoint, the media’s generally responsible handling of this unfortunate incident was an unexpected positive.
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Fraser P. Seitel has been a communications consultant, author and teacher for 40 years. He may be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is the author of the Prentice-Hall text The Practice of Public Relations, now in its eleventh edition, and co-author of Rethinking Reputation and Idea Wise.