Sunday, October 02, 2005

Mea Culpas 

There are now numerous stories correcting original stories that came out of Hurricane Katrina -- lurid tales of rape, robbery, killings, lootings and bodies piled high in the Superdome and elsewhere. The media has recognized too late that it contributed to hysteria rather than reporting facts. I would like to think that some of these stories are "mea culpas" for a poor job of sorting facts from fiction.

On the other hand, what were reporters to do when some falsehoods came from the Mayor of New Orleans and the police chief? The claim that 10,000 people died in New Orleans was directly from the mayor and horror stories of body piles came from the police chief. A charitable explanation of events would conclude that both lost their heads during the disaster. A cynical explanation would say they were attempting to blackmail the Federal government. I can't read the mind of anyone, so I'm not going to assign a reason. Communication broke down in the city, so neither the mayor nor the police chief knew what was happening in those critical hours.

Yup, you saw this coming. The lesson for PR practitioners is simple and part of PR 101. Never speak when you don't have facts. Never. At most, hedge everything you say carefully. You cannot depend on the media doing it for you in a crisis. They failed in New Orleans: They will fail again. The pressure to report an unfolding crisis is so great that rules of good reporting are set aside. Reporters are anxious to record a deluge of facts, impressions and perceptions. They don't have time to sort them out. Editors should apply brakes, but they are overwhelmed too.

What should practitioners be doing in the role of protecting clients during crises? That's the hard part. Perhaps clients are at fault. We don't and can't know until we have facts like everyone else. But, we can make a case to avoid a rush to judgment. "We don't know" is not a satisfying answer, but it is a true one. "You don't know" seems accusatory when dealing with a reporter, but it is likely to be true as well. Reporters can get belligerent when someone tells them to check again, but it seems to me we need to tell them to do so.

I have witnessed crises where clients harmed their cases because facts they should have had weren't available until weeks after initial events. It was too late then. What this tells me is that companies still aren't doing a good job of preparing for crises. They still aren't fashioning likely scenarios of what can happen and rehearsing responses. This is as much a failure of PR as it is of top management.

When a huge crisis hits like Katrina and all communications are severed, expect the worst, for it will most likely happen. Preparation and rehearsals are overwhelmed, and lack of communication makes fact checking impossible. The best one can do is to plead for the media to be careful in what they report. If I find any fault with the Mayor and now, former police chief of New Orleans, it is that they forgot this rule.


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