“It’s Three A.M. – And The Phone Rings…” – And How to Stop the “Janks Pranks”

| August 25, 2014

By Howard B. Price
ABC Television Network
Director, Business Continuity

pricehowardNo doubt you remember “it’s three a.m. – and the phone rings…” from a 2008 Clinton for President political ad – arguably the most enduring line from that campaign.

And it’s a question broadcasters need to answer BEFORE bad things happen…because bad things tend to happen at the worst possible time.

Like 3:20 a.m. Pacific Time this past Sunday…when the earth in and around Napa County, California shook like it hadn’t shaken in almost 25 years.

At 3:20 am at most stations outside the largest markets – and even at some of the bigs, too – the programming likely is automated, or live via satellite. If anyone actually IS home, they are likely to be the lowest-paid, least-experienced people on the payroll.

And that’s OK…we’ve all been there.

But it’s only OK if plans are in place to help those folks deal with breaking news when senior managers, more experienced hands – and a full crew – aren’t around to help.

If I’m a California station manager, I’ve got a quake plan that takes my staff step-by-step through operations and internal notification, programming and commercial adjustments, and continuous coverage ground rules. I’ve built comprehensive lists of key contacts in local, regional and state government; public and private disaster response groups; academic experts. And I’ve got a network news affiliation to back me up.

Because at the end of the day, you’ve got to be fast. You have to be comprehensive. And most of all, you have to be right.

One of my friends – an experienced emergency manager, trained first responder AND a Ph.D. – posts on Facebook that after this weekend’s quake, he heard a guest on one of northern California’s leading radio stations dispense some really bad information on how to protect yourself in an earthquake. He said the guest contradicted the well established “duck, cover and hold” earthquake protocol. And when my friend called in to the radio station to offer a correction, the producer promised to follow up, and then brusquely hung up on him. It’s unclear if the RIGHT information ever made it on the air.

Look…I’ve been “those guys.” That is, I have been a listener trying to help a local station improve its handling of an emergency, and I’ve been the harried news/talk radio producer overwhelmed by events unfolding around me – trying to do the best I can with the limited resources at my disposal.

And it doesn’t help if your host isn’t good at juggling, managers just roused from sleep are barking orders, and you’re underpaid and overworked.

This is why you need a plan. There is no juggling – just follow the plan. There are no orders to be barked – just follow the plan. You don’t need to guess about what to tell listeners – just follow the plan. And all the resources you need are at your fingertips – just follow the damn plan.

A plan also helps you better protect yourself against pranksters. CNN once again found itself victimized during its early coverage of the Napa quake…putting on their air a guy who identified himself as “Adam Sure,” and who claimed to be a public information officer for the San Francisco Police. The anchor asked “Sure” for an update on how the quake had impacted his jurisdiction, and he replied that it appears the quake “was a rumbling from Howard Stern’s butt crack.”

We can’t say for sure, but “Adam Sure” sure sounded like “Captain Janks,” a/k/a Tom Cipriano, a Pennsylvania trucker and devoted Howard Stern fan, who for about 25 years now has made, by his own admission to the Washington Post, about 10,000 prank calls to various media organizations. He says even HE is amazed by how often they fall for his fakery.

Full disclosure: I was one of his victims. In 1994, I was working in the newsroom of a New York City TV station when a bomb exploded aboard a subway train in lower Manhattan. I ran to the control room to start setting up phoners, when one of the lines lit up with a call from “Lt. Sean Lennon” from the New York City Police Department, offering an update on the evolving tragedy.

I put him on the air – only to have our listeners bombarded with references to “Bababooey.”

Cipriano, for all his mischief, makes a valid point. It is far too easy to put one over on the media, and many times we have only our own sloppiness to blame. Radio and TV today are in a constant race to meet or beat what is being reported on social media, and  everyone is looking for that “on scene exclusive.” The system of checks and balances isn’t what it used to be at many media outlets. The pranksters know it, and they act on our vulnerabilities.

So how to prevent a hoax?

  • First, understand that most officials will not proactively call into to studio lines. Usually, they are too busy managing the emergency, and it’s not usually part of an official media protocol. As part of your crisis plan, you should instruct bona fide sources who DO want to call you to call your NEWSROOM first, where they can be vetted before being sent into the air studio. Better still, call out to them.
  • Don’t fall for names that sound sketchy. “Sean Lennon” was John Lennon’s son – a well-known public figure. And had I had more time to think about it, I would’ve realized that and thought twice before putting them on the air.
  • Establish “check” questions. Ask the caller something only someone in his or her position would know. Or trap them with a trick question. Any answer they give that’s not the right answer is a clue they are a phony.
  • Don’t rely on callback #s, unless they match those already in your database for people from the organization for which the caller claims to speak. After all, the callback they give you will be the phone from which they are calling – and since they know you’re calling to verify their authenticity, they’ll just answer the phone as the person they claim to be.
  • Use caller ID. If you see a distant area code calling in about a local event, and it’s not a number from an agency or individual you recognize, be cautious.
  • Watch for callbacks from broken connections. Cipriano has said one of his tricks is to quickly call in when a real eyewitness or spokesperson has been disconnected. He then claims to be the person who got disconnected.
  • Think about putting live coverage on a short delay. I know – it’s an anathema to all of us. But in the social media age, the race to be first and exclusive exposes us to many risks that are getting harder to mitigate. A few seconds’ delay gives you a fighting chance to keep your air talent – and you – from embarrassing yourself and seeming incompetent to your audience.
  • Educate your producers, editors and hosts. Have them build familiarity with people who are real experts – and make sure those people are at the top of their “go to” lists for bookings during live continuous coverage.

Learn more about building a crisis plan for your station by visiting my website, MediaDisasterPrep.com. Or e-mail me at Howard@MediaDisasterPrep.com for a free copy of my Top Ten Do-Now Preparedness Tips, including ways to turn disaster readiness from a cost center to a profit center. Use the subject line TOP 10 CRISIS TIPS.

Failing to plan is planning to fail – and the time to plan for disaster is before one strikes.

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Howard B. Price, CBCP/MBCI is director, business continuity for ABC ABC Television Network. He can be emailed at Howard.B.Price@abc.com or phoned at 212-456-1073.

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Category: Advice