January 21, 2014 by Rich Cooper

One of the challenges when a tragic event occurs is communicating to the public about it. In an age where camera phones and social media outlets have become the first “BREAKING NEWS” alerts of the day, telling the story of what has just happened is not as easy as it would seem. Media outlets anxious to be the first with the latest details have been known to jump the gun and report information that ends up being false and in some cases detrimental to individual reputations. Additionally, official spokespeople for first responders, government agencies and other impacted organizations have had to change or even correct initial statements that they’ve made to the media and public at large after new details have become available to them.

The fact that both parties – media outlets and official spokespeople – have their challenges in these circumstances only makes the “fog of war” situations on these “bad days” even more challenging for the public. While it is never fortunate to be in these “bad day” situations (because lives and property are often lost or irreparably harmed), I have been fortunate enough to work with professionals on both sides of the microphone and the reporter’s notepad.

On more than a few notable occasions, I’ve had an opportunity to stand in the back of press rooms, TV studios and other media opportunities, seeing the whole communicating and reporting effort play out. It’s often a dance of two suspicious partners who don’t necessarily trust one another but know that they need the other to move forward in getting information out.

It got me thinking – what would these seasoned professionals cite as most important in responding to devastating incidents? I reached out to two friends and former colleagues to get their take on how people should look to respond to these “bad days.”

I spoke to Jeff Carter, who has had to work on some of the more notable “bad days.” He is a retired U.S. Coast Guard officer who has been the lead public affairs spokesperson during Hurricanes Katrina & Rita (2005), the BP Gulf Oil Spill (2010), as well as chief of Public Affairs for the U.S. Marshals Service. I also reached out to veteran journalist Jeanne Meserve, who was the former Homeland Security Correspondent with CNN and ABC News. She is a reporter who has had to ask the hard questions and assemble a narrative for a hungry and curious public, covering terror strikes, wide-scale emergencies and national security situations that often had lots of people on edge.

With experience comes wisdom and scar tissue from the things that went right and those that went wrong. Jeff and Jeanne possess both. Their responses reveal important lessons for folks on both sides of the microphone about how critical communications are to making difficult situations better. Here’s what they had to say.

1. What’s the first indication you have a story is about to be big?

Jeff Carter: For me it seems most, but not all, crisis situations start out with a call or e-mail from a reporter. They have a tip or have some nugget of information to confirm, which leads me to start asking internally about the situation. I have been lucky enough at times to get brought in on internal discussions where there is awareness things may head south. Time to prepare a response plan is always a blessing.

Jeanne Meserve: The nature of the threat, the extent of physical damage, or the number of deaths, sometimes make it obvious. In other cases, Twitter is often the first barometer.

2. Who is the first person you usually contact to prepare to cover an event?

Carter: Well, it is tiered; senior leadership for awareness, operations because they will gather (and sift) information and those closest to the crisis because they have the ground truth.

Meserve: Editors, producers, and assignment editors, to get people and equipment headed in the right direction and get everyone on the phone with their sources. Externally, I immediately reach out to the appropriate agencies and officials. If they can’t fill me in, there are sometimes other trusted sources plugged into the situation.

3. How soon should a press conference occur after an event happens?

Carter: My first goal is to get an official statement distributed within an hour of the incident or crisis to avoid speculation and misinformation. Paid media experts love to fill the vacuum with “what-ifs,” and my sources are usually better than their sources.

As for press conferences, it really depends on the situation but enough time needs to have passed that you have something to say. If there are a lot of outlets asking the same questions, or the scope of the incident is huge, a press conference is an efficient way to pass along information. However, most reporters I know do not like pressers, and there is nothing more frustrating than standing in front of the media and repeatedly stating you do not have an answer for their questions.

Meserve: As soon as possible. Feed the beast. Curb the speculation.

4. How seriously do you take the information reported via social media and how can you tell fact from fiction?

Carter: Of course there are hoaxes, but I take social media very seriously. Participatory journalism is a real thing, and everyone with a mobile device can easily become a primary source. For example, CNN called me when I was the chief of public affairs for the U.S. Marshals Service to confirm the validity of a video which had been uploaded to YouTube. Although no action was visible, it purported to have the sounds of multiple shots being fired outside the U.S. District Court in Las Vegas. I contacted our operations center and was informed they were just getting word on the shootout, which began 30 minutes earlier. Someone departing the courthouse following jury duty had uploaded the video within 20 minutes of the shooting, and I was being called 10 minutes after that upload.

Meserve: Vetted official Twitter feeds are invaluable, though not all organizations use them effectively in a breaking news situation. Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are also fantastic tools for gathering information from non-official sources, though you don’t report it without confirming it. I believe if Twitter had existed when Katrina hit New Orleans, emergency officials and the media would have immediately understood the magnitude of the event, and the response would have unfolded much differently.

5. What’s the biggest misstep you see made in responding to breaking news item?

Carter: Not responding fast enough with an initial statement. (Former Commandant, USCG) Adm. Thad Allen once told me the public wants to know someone is on scene, in charge and taking action. That information should go out almost immediately.

Meserve: Sometimes there is no information, just speculation. In other instances, in the rush to push out information, reporters and officials sometimes get things wrong.

6. How do you sort out the information that is being given to you in the rush to get information out to the public?

Carter: Multiple people and entities will be providing you information, but speak directly to the source, whenever possible.

Meserve: Ditto. I prioritize the most important facts – who, what, where, when, and why. Unfortunately, another key question is often whether there is a connection to terrorism.

7. What’s the most reliable source that you have available to you in these situations?

Carter: Usually it is your folks in operations or those closest to the incident.

Meserve: It depends entirely on the story. It is often not an official spokesman.

8. What’s the best way to get information to you and see it included in public releases?

Carter: Include me in meetings and discussions so I have the lay of land and there are no surprises. Communications is part of a successful response to an event.

Meserve: A direct Twitter message, an e-mail or a phone call will all work. I want to hear what you have to say! It helps if we have a relationship based on mutual trust before the big news hits.

9. Is there ever a danger in reporting too much information?

Carter: Yes, of course, and it is sometimes a fine line, but to quote my instructors from the Defense Information School all those years ago, the standard should be “maximum disclosure with minimum delay” when it comes to releasable information.

Meserve: Yes. We have seen situations where people have eluded capture by following the moves of law enforcement live on television, for instance. But in many cases reporters and officials will disagree on how much information is too much information.

10. Describe what it’s like to walk back information you previously reported as fact, but you’ve now discovered as inaccurate?

Carter: My greatest professional embarrassment was passing to the media, after being informed by three senior agency leaders, that an employee had died without naming the individual. Once local news broadcast the information, I was contacted almost immediately by the hospital spokesperson and within five minutes issued a correction with a heartfelt apology. That hospital spokesperson became my best friend for the remainder of a very long day, and we coordinated the release of information later that evening once the employee succumbed to his wounds. I pray to this day the family of that employee was spared any heartache from my mistake.

Meserve: It is excruciating. Inaccurate reporting is a violation of professional ethics, which hurts the journalist, their news organization and their profession. But you have to own up to your mistakes.

11. Are there any limits to what should be reported?

Carter: You don’t want to endanger a prosecution or on-going investigation by putting out too much information, and there are some things you cannot release due to statute, regulation or policy.

Meserve: Yes. Media organizations have held back stories or information in the interest of national security, for instance. But the reason has to be compelling. Reporters and editors are wary of being patsies for officials who are simply trying to bury information they find inconvenient or embarrassing.

12. What advice do you have for people that might find themselves in these situations?

Carter: Beyond the obvious of preparing and practicing for crisis, you should be aggressive, credible and responsive in your craft. Aggressively tell your story, be a credible source of information, and be responsive to both internal and external requests.

Meserve: In the immediate aftermath of a major event, officials may not have all the facts, but sometimes they have enough information to rule out certain possibilities. This should be shared with reporters.

For example, in 2003, the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated over Texas while reentering the earth’s atmosphere. Within an hour, I got a phone call from a Department of Homeland Security spokesman who told me that authorities had already been able to rule out that the spacecraft had been hit by a shoulder-fired missile. That one call preempted what would likely have been hours of media speculation about a nexus to terrorism.