Monday, August 8, 2011

What Went Right for PR and Media Outreach in Norway's Aftermath

No matter how gut-wrenching or shocking the news, PR professionals will always look back and see who handled crises best. It's not just work-related curiosity. By knowing who had an admirable crisis plan in place (and who didn't) and how it worked, we can fine-tune our own. Over the past few weeks, Norway's tragedy has remained lodged in our minds (along with the debt ceiling crisis and News of The World scandals), and it stuck with the easily-distracted press, too. We watched reporters handle interviews admirably in the aftermath, but it feels like much of the media has taken a step back from delving too deeply into the 93 deaths (at last count). Invasive family interviews, harsh criticisms: they simply didn’t have a place here.

Take, for instance, Helen Pidd's piece in The Guardian. She's covered tragedy, heartbreak, and murder the world over, but while in Norway she had an overwhelming sense of guilt for simply being there at all. Pidd traveled to Bardu to speak with the survivors, but when she arrived and was told to keep her distance, that was it pretty much it.

“If I am specifically told to leave the families alone, I won't go near them,” Pidd said in How Should Journalists Talk to Survivors of the Attacks in Norway? “If the police liaison officer hasn't issued a warning, I will take a deep breath and knock on the parents' door once, telling myself that sometimes people want to talk about those they have lost. It doesn't feel good. If they say they don't want to talk, I won't return.”

Pidd saw one of the survivors, and she didn't approach her for an interview. A nurse in Bardu asked her not to attempt contact. Instead, Pidd drove towards the Ice Peak mountains, thinking about all the other times she had pursued survivors for the perfect interview. This time, however, she felt torn between going after her story and leaving the survivors alone – and ended up choosing the latter.

I’d like to think that crisis management in Norway set the tone for coverage, beginning with PM Jens Stoltenberg’s response to the attacks. He showed emotion openly, and with obvious sadness, coupled with the skills of a true orator: “right words at the right time.”

Could it be the time of year, as we edge closer towards the tenth anniversary of 9/11, or the fact that Norway's reputation as peacekeeper and record-setting giver of foreign aid made the attacks even more shocking, pushing us towards a softer stance in media response? I think it may be so.

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