Global scrutiny – can you hack it?

Cries of surprise and outrage about the “disrespectful” questions being asked by international journalists in the wake of the Pike River mining tragedy and the [shock, horror, gasp] “aggressive” questioning of those in charge of the rescue operation indicate some naïveté about the way the journalism works beyond our borders. We really need to wake up to the ways of the world media.

[UPDATE: November 24 – OK, even I accept that today’s patently outrageous “country cop” accusation dressed up as a question went beyond the boundary of acceptable behaviour. But my point is that, like it or not, this kind of thing is part and parcel of the hell-pit that is a global media scrum]. 

A large proportion of our businesses export stuff. Whether it’s dairy products, paints, rocketry, software or micro-light helicopters. And when our products go into aggressive media markets, we do too. Just ask Fisher & Paykel.

Our own borders offer no protection. If we think we can remain safe and snug within the confines of our remote isles, shielded from the vagaries and excesses of the world media, we need only take a long hard look at what Pike River Coal CEO Peter Whittall has been having to deal with since Friday afternoon.

The truth is that the world’s a stage and the international media, driven by rolling news cycles and an insatiable demand for fresh human interest material, has all the front-row passes.

Most of what’s been called “disgraceful”, disgusting”, “disrespectful” and “aggressive” is just bog-standard international media circus fare.

The Second, Third and Fourth Estates in New Zealand have long interacted according to an unwritten code of relatively genteel conduct. While the ends have been known to be pretty savage, the means themselves have mostly been terribly civilised.

The result has been a more collegial, respectful, less confrontational interview style than much of the rest of the world has come to expect. From news programme hosts right through to the journalist on the beat. Even Sean Plunkett, that erstwhile pit-bull of agenda-setting daily radio news programming, is a benign, almost avuncular figure compared with the BBC’s Jeremy Paxman (Newsnight) and John Humphrys (the Today programme).

There has been some valid criticism of the quality of reporting on the Pike River event from all media, both foreign and domestic. Fair enough – the factual accuracy of much of it has been abysmal. And I’ll call out sloppy reporting as quickly as I’ll call out supine, compliant or fawning journalism.

But most of what’s been called “disgraceful”, disgusting”, “disrespectful” and “aggressive” in some quarters is just bog-standard international media circus fare.  It’s not pretty. It’s not wholesome. [UPDATE: November 26 – And, when it comes to the harassment of the victims’ families, it might not even be legal].But the sooner we get to know how to deal with it, the better.

In addition to standard crisis communication best practice here are just a few thoughts on managing the international media scrum arising from what I’ve observed in Greymouth over the past few days. Please feel free to add to them.

Know what you’re facing. The visiting team just won’t have any respect for rank or title. If you’ve become accustomed to a little deference from the locals because you’re a big fish in this particular pond, kiss that goodbye for starters. Any resentment you feel about being knocked around on your perch will be picked up and just won’t translate well. If you’re going to react badly to the media scrum be big enough to admit itand have someone more suitable front up to the cameras.

Get ready to go further. “I don’t want to tell you” or “it’s none of your business” just won’t cut it with the visiting press pack. You’re going to need to anticipate questions and be prepared to answer them as fully and as helpfully as you possibly can. Where you can’t answer a question, explain exactly why.

Fill the information vacuum. There’s always a news deadline somewhere. Find a suitable way to keep the international scrum updated with developments throughout the day and use your press briefings at the start and end of the day to recap and field questions. Speculation, innuendo and vox pops from discontented punters will always fill an information vacuum.

Demonstrate action. In the rolling global news cycle almost any development is news. The Pike River rescue co-ordinators have been slated, wrongly, for inaction. Because while the rescue teams have been waiting for the green light to go into the mine a huge operation has swung into play. Invisibly. This could so easily have been highlighted by deploying a few half-decent media liason officers and a pool camera or two (remember the pool camera at Copiapó?). But hey, that would have involved recognising media management as a core part of the overall operation from the get-go.

[UPDATE: November 25 – spot-on summary of the Pike River media coverage by this week’s Media7 http://tvnz.co.nz/media7/s5-e26-video-3915886. Apropos the previous two points, hear journalist and media commentator Denis Welch comment that “…when there’s no news for several days there’s a tendency (for media) to start writing the script.”]

Get ahead of the curve. Don’t just monitor local media coverage and the few usual international suspects. Make sure someone on your team knows how your news is being reported internationally so you can react if you have to.

Use social media. Another great way to keep on top of the international rumour mill and ensure the wider world is kept up to speed with developments and your perspective. I find it incredible that, three days in, there doesn’t appear to be an official Twitter account maintained by the event coordinators.

There has been some great media management on display – notably from Pike River Coal’s CEO Peter Whittall (humble, helpful, human) and its chairman John Dow (patient, knowledgeable, firm). They’ve got the measure of the media they’re dealing with. And the way they’re performing now will create a useful halo effect for the criticism of Pike River Coal that will come later. In fact, which is already circulating around Greymouth and permeating through some social media and sections of the blogosphere.

There have also been some particularly troubled performances – Tasman Police district commander Superintendent Gary Knowles (wooden, unwilling, resentful, surly and overly authoritarian) and New Zealand Mines Rescue general manager Trevor Watts (bombastic, officious and macho). It’s little wonder these men have raised the hackles of the global media corps and caused PM John Key to have to step in this morning to emphasise the need for caution and patience and to acknowledgethe levels of frustration, stress and anxiety being experienced by the miners’ families.

Key gets it. Pike River Coal gets it. Officialdom doesn’t. This isn’t your local bunch of friendly media, boys. Knowing how to deal with polite Kiwi hacks is one thing. Having the smarts to handle the more aggressive, demanding international variety is quite another.

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