Crisis Communications: Media Analysis

As part of our final report to Grayback Forestry, my partner Leslie and I wrote a media analysis, trying to capture the sheer volume of media contacts in the first 72 hours after the helicopter crash. I thought I’d share part of it with you here.

I’ve found that the media attention tends to move in phases. I usually identify four phases of media attention based on my experience and here I’ll tell you about phase one as it relates specifically to this incident.

Phase One: Breaking News

The first 72 hours following the announcement of the accident were the most intense in terms of media attention. In an effort to best tell a breaking news story, the media seek the who, what, when, where, why and how. They want names of injured and missing (the fallen firefighters were considered missing, but presumed perished, for the first couple of days), they wanted to know where the accident occurred and the condition of the injured firefighters.

We fielded an estimated 500 media calls during the first 72 hours.

This was a national media story, and we had contacts with local, regional and national media of all types. Many outlets also had multiple reporters covering different angles or different aspects of the story. For example, the Oregonian had no less than five reporters seeking information during these first three days.

The first few days are often the most difficult because information is not always accurate and access to the people the reporters want to talk to are both limited. In particularly chaotic environments, it can also be hard to even know where media will show up – Grayback Forestry has two bases in southern Oregon and the accident occurred in northern California (and media were in all three places, plus the hospitals).

In the first phase it’s not possible to be proactive in the way we typically try to be in PR at this point, but it is possible to understand the media’s need for information. The information needs vary depending on the phase and having some sense of what those needs are will allow you to respond as quickly as possible. You do say, “I don’t know” and “Let me find that out” a lot in the first days, though.

It was key that the company had a Web site that was built on Joomla, a content management system, so I was able to quickly navigate the back-end menus and keep the site up to date. As an aside, Joomla is fairly clunky and I got stuck multiple times, but it was better than nothing and access was as simple as a user name and password (as opposed to having to track down FTP information).

Having an up-to-date Web site was helpful for creating a central information portal. This reduced the number of calls and reduced the length of some calls (“the information you need is on the Web site”). Having rudimentary Web skills or someone at your beck-and-call to manage the Web is only going to continue to grow in importance for crisis communicators.

How do we handle all of this? Keep your cell phone charged, remember to eat and keep important information at your fingertips… these are long days. It’s also important to keep good records – log every media call, what the reporter needed and whether or not you were able to respond.

Also try to understand, as quickly as possible, how the company operates and who you can go to for information. Despite the intense pressure you’re feeling to respond to the media, be empathetic and understand what people in the company are going through. This is an important skill in most of what we do in public relations, but in crisis work, it’s vital – especially incidents like this one.

In phase two, you have the opportunity to help shape the story going forward and I’ll tell you more about that, soon.

Have questions? Ask!

Photos by me (top to bottom): Interview with Scott Charlson’s family, employee meeting preceeding press conference, press conference, KDRV’s Tove Tupper interviewing Mike Wheelock.

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  • ndotts

    I was just wondering in this type of situation if you traveled to Southern Oregon, California or visited the hospitals? Is it a good idea for the PR rep to be familiar with the places where the crisis occurred?

  • Kelli Matthews

    Niyah, great question. We were both in Medford. In hindsight, one of us should’ve gone to California because of the media pressure at the hospitals, but in the end it worked out ok. You have to go where the media are. In my experience, it’s not as much about being familiar with the area where the crisis occurred as being able to respond to the media wherever *they* are. In this case, there were media in California near the crash site, at the hospitals and at the company headquarters.