By Howard B. Price
ABC Television Network
Director, Business Continuity
We don’t yet know the full story behind the shooting of an unarmed African-American man by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri – a suburb of St. Louis.
But what has emerged in the days of protest, rioting and looting that have followed is both a cautionary tale and a teachable moment for broadcasters. They – and digital newsgatherers, too – are being tested on their ability to ramp up meaningful coverage of contentious social issues simmering in communities large and small. Also being tested is their preparedness to both report the story while protecting their people and property.
One trade website yesterday published an internal memo from a St. Louis TV news director, in which he announced the purchased of gas masks to better protect his troops covering the events in Ferguson.
That’s great. But as experienced emergency planners know, preparedness isn’t just about laying in stores of riot gear (especially after the fact). It’s about fit testing that gear to make sure it’s used properly – and it’s about training your people about what to do – and not do — in a hostile environment. It’s even about knowing when to leave.
At my recent presentation to the Talkers New York 2014 conference, attendees heard my take on “The Big Red Book.” No one reads it before an event, everyone is too crazed to use it during an event. And after an event, it is little more than a paperweight.
What makes for effective crisis planning is the ongoing incorporation of best practices in our everyday business operations. It means formal training for those staffers most likely to be dispatched to stories like Ferguson, or to natural disasters like earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes and wildfires.
It means consulting experts who can teach you how to properly source and use emergency gear. It means learning the right response techniques. And it means periodically refreshing both the training and the equipment to keep both up to current standards – and top of mind.
Did I mention it means spending a few bucks?
And for programmers and news directors, it means having a coverage plan beyond “flushing the format” and moving spotload around.
Here are some quick tips to start the process at your station:
- Engage certified health & safety managers for guidance on what gear to buy for what circumstances, and where to buy it. Make sure your team knows when – and how – to use it properly. And when it needs to be replaced.
- Contact experienced security personnel to create both hostile environment and all-hazards training courses for your team. These can be either in-person or web-based programs, depending on you budget and how often you dispatch personnel to potentially dangerous incidents. Make sure someone has your team’s back in the field.
- Develop a communications plan – and a command and control system – to assure that everyone stays in touch – and on the same page. There should be a single point person who assesses the risks and makes the tough go/no-go decisions.
- Remember that even music-intensive stations can be touchstones for communities in crisis. The people listeners turn to every day for entertainment and information form a bond with those listeners – and perhaps most especially, when bad things happen, those listeners likely will turn to them FIRST before switching to all-news, all-talk or news/talk stations. Don’t hesitate to pull the trigger on special coverage.
- Use the power of the web and social media to dispense real-time truth and fact to your audience – during periods of social unrest in particular, rumor control is absolutely critical. Everything must be vetted before going on the air or online. What distinguishes pros like you from the amateurs blogging, tweeting, Instagramming and Facebooking is that YOU have unique and on-demand access to decision makers and social influencers. YOU seek out truth, exert accountability – and bring about meaningful action.
- Keep your community contacts current – and know how to reach them at any hour of the day.
- Make sure your on-air teams stay “smart” on local issues so they can discuss them intelligently and for extended periods on the air.
- And make sure you have the means to “bring the story home.” Educate your listeners on ways they can meaningfully interact with you; grow your own “instant news team” using smartphones and tablets. Invest in the field technology – like good ole’ two-way radio — you’ll need to take your audience to the scene whenever and wherever news breaks.
When the music and in-studio tomfoolery have to go away, make sure your audience doesn’t do the same. Prepare your people and your plant now to be THE reliable source when the public needs them most.
Howard B. Price, CBCP/MBCI is director, business continuity for ABC News. He can be emailed at Howard.B.Price@abc.com or phoned at 212-456-1073.