Media and crisis: The New Zealand model!

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Media lessons never end, especially, in the New Media age. It used to be a much simpler world. If you needed to inform the public on an important matter, you could produce a TV broadcast, send a press release or call for a press conference. People would get the message loud and clear.

What about a crisis? Set up a press center to feed the media, around the clock. You could speak directly to your audience in gatherings - town halls, public events and organized meetings. The press would always be there to cover and relay the news to a wider audience.

That seems like ages ago, when channels of communication with the public were numbered, predictable and managed. You dealt with them through traditional channels - editors, journalists and management. They knew you, you knew them, and everyone had a defined role to play.

You might wish that those times were still there, if you happened to be a leader, a politician or a businessman. If crisis struck, you knew where to go and whom to speak to in order to contain the fire. You all lived in the same environment, spoke the same language and went to similar schools.

That was the time when the media was not part of the fire, but a mere reflection. Today, the media is the fire!

A small, local accident or crime may now grow, by the hour, into a global wildfire. Worse, there are no typical, known sources to deal with. A person with a camera, who happens to be there, takes a picture and uploads it to Facebook or Twitter. Followers from all over the world become interested and share the story. In no time, millions are contributing to the discussion, adding their own pieces of intelligence and analysis. They speak tens of languages, come from a variety of cultures, follow all kinds of ideologies and subscribe to conflicting school of thought.

No matter how well informed you may be, you will still come out short for some, confusing for others and off base for many.

If you can afford it, you might use the experience of the best experts in media and public relations. That might help, but there is no guarantee of success. People differ in their perspectives, education and priorities, so there is no one size that fits all.

Last week, I was invited to speak to King Khalid University’s Third International Conference - Media and Crises: Perspectives and Strategies. The main theme was how to deal with a crisis using today’s media tools. Tens of researchers, academics and media experts presented their analyses and solutions in two days of intensive discussions.

I felt that we missed more than we achieved. Not for lack of trying, but because the variables were so many and so elastic and confusing. “There is no professional title called journalist, today,” I told my audience. “We are all journalists! Anyone with an internet access can be a broadcaster, a reporter, a superstar.

“All you need to invest in the media world is a free account with YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, Telegram, Twitter or any of the live media outlets. A few steps later and you can broadcast your opinions, stories and comments live to the rest of the world. You can bring others on board in groups, set up a radio or TV station, and collaborate with like-minded people in far, far away galaxies! If you are lucky enough and have a powerful message or personality, you may hit a gold mine and be followed by millions.”

Still, we are all human. No matter how different our paths may be, we are basically the same. We all wake up every morning hoping for a better day, chasing a happy dream, and serving a beloved country, community and family. When devious people strike our basic beliefs, we are one. Our responses may differ in some ways, but we cannot tolerate criminality, cruelty and injustice. When a leader, a true leader, arises to represent our stand, we honor and follow his/her lead.

That is exactly what happened when an Australian terrorist attacked two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. The carnage and the fanatic’s manifesto angered the world. All it took was for a previously little known leader to come out of the shadows and unite us all. With her sincerity, compassion and leadership, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Kate Laurell Ardern, managed to contain the crisis, win hearts and minds and lead us all toward more understanding, tolerance and hope!

This was a historic lesson on how to deal with media in times of crisis. It was not about lies and deception, smoke and mirrors, doctoring and photoshopping, but true, simple and universal gestures and language that won the day. She deserves a prize - the Nobel Prize!

Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi is a Saudi writer based in Jeddah. He can be reached at kbatarfi@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter: @kbatarfi


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