Opinion

What the Thai cave rescue tells us about crisis media management

Crisis management trainer Jane Jordan takes a look back at one of the biggest media stories of the year and provides some useful learnings for everyone, even if you don't happen to be stuck in a cave.

Let’s talk about caves!

Well, not caves specifically, but what the amazing rescue of the Thai soccer team and their coach means in crisis management terms. More specifically, managing the media when the eyes of the world are on you, your brand and your reputation.

First things first. I’m in awe of the rescue attempt, which appears to be complicated, complex and treacherous. As the ABC reported: “An extraordinary community has sprung up on the sidelines of the cave rescue in northern Thailand.”

And this community includes the media – hundreds of them on the spot, all wanting to be the first to report the news. Scrambling, sharing, swapping, surfing, shrinking information to meet deadlines, to keep abreast of the citizen journalists churning out information by the second, wondering if they’ve got the scoop.

The media situation is intense at a time like this, when the story has the drama, tension and challenge of a Hollywood movie.

So how best to manage the media and ‘feed the beast’ in a timely, transparent and consistent manner? It does appear, at least from afar, that the media management went smoothly. The information was timely, the spokesperson accessible and transparent.

‘What to feed the beast’, I hear you ask?

The first step is to understand how the media report a crisis.

If you take a close look at any crisis, you’ll see distinct, predictable patterns in how the media behave. There are four discernible stages, and they are evident in old and new media alike.

Why? Quite simply, we expect a certain narrative to appear at certain times. Research by Stanford University regarding coverage of 9/11, for example, shows very clearly that “narrative patterns all play out in predictable ways during crisis reporting.”

The readers and the storytellers themselves, perhaps unknowingly, expect to hear, see and read about stories of courage, death defying events, people surviving against the odds, and that someone, somewhere will be held accountable for losses.

We want to know that someone cares and has the determination, conviction and compassion to do something to make sure that the “worst” can never happen again.

Essentially, human beings are storytelling animals. We will stretch, shrink and squeeze the truth to suit our own experience, our perceptions, our biases and culture. Once the facts are out there, we will then dissect the information and pass our own judgments.

The four stages of a crisis

Imagine that each stage of a crisis is symbolized by a light. It goes a little like this:

Stage one

In stage one, the spotlight is beaming squarely on the incident. This is the “breaking news” stage. “What happened?” is the key question. And the news travels very fast in stage one to stage two – it doesn’t take long for the story to jump the “fire line.”

Stage two

Stage two is characterised by the focus on the “victims” and the response. The light moves quickly from the incident itself (although new facts will continue to emerge) to the “drama.” How could this have happened? How many people are hurt, missing and/or dead? How is the organisation responding? How quickly did the emergency responders get to the scene (or in the case of the young boys in Thailand, how did they get to hospital?) The light will shine brightly on the villain/the perpetrator – or who we think the perpetrator might be.

This stage is key. This is the make it or break it stage, the reputation forming stage, the stage where the rallying on social media sites, both negative and positive, becomes a focal point.

The spotlight, with widening and growing intensity, points at the organisation and persons who appear to be at the centre of the storm. It will roam around and catch whoever will talk about what’s just happened.

Experts start to appear on TV and radio talk-back. My local ABC 1233 Newcastle has had a cave diving expert talking with Paul Bevan. Victims start talking in-depth about their experiences. In this case, it was the heroes doing the talking, since the victims could only be seen by picture only. The organisation starts to give its side of the story. This stage can last at least 72 hours, or in the case of this cave rescue in Northern Thailand, even longer.

In the Thai cave rescue, there are angles galore, and as facts emerge more discussion erupts, or while the world waits, the media search out different angles. For example the ABC ran an opinion piece on Thai cave rescue: why do we care so much about these trapped boys? Another has a story about the volunteers who are supporting the rescue operation, including feeding the tent-city that has sprung up around the entrance to the caves. This tent-city includes the (worldwide) media of course, plus the boys’ families.

Then there is the weather, an incredibly important angle for this rescue attempt.

And, of course, there is much focus on the ‘heroes’, the divers – understandably so. Who is leading the rescue operation, their backgrounds, what do people think of them? Interviews abound with family, friends and fellow workers. We want to know that they have what it takes to get these boys and their coach out alive.

One such hero is an Australian doctor Richard “Harry” Harris, who is not only an anaesthetist but a very experienced cave diver. He is the one assessing the boys’ health and making the critical decisions about who is rescued when. The story angle: how he gave up his holiday to be part of this high-risk mission. As I said, this is the stuff of Hollywood movies.

As with a story of this kind and as fragile, as treacherous, as big as this rescue attempt is, there is celebrity involvement.

Tweeter-in-chief President Donald Trump has, of course, joined the fray with tweets of support.

Ever the entrepreneur, if not (media) attention seeker, Elon Musk joined in by offering a kid-sized submarine for the trapped boys.

The lesson? Anticipate anything and everything to come out of the proverbial cupboard in stage two, particularly when the story is as big as this.

After stage two, the media spotlight gets even more intense

Stage three

Stage Three is the one best avoided, although inevitably we all want to go there – yes, it’s the finger pointing blame stage. Think back to the devastating oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico when the executives of the three companies at heart of it were severely chastised over attempts to shift the blame to each other.

In this finger pointing stage, everyone has an opinion about you, your product, your organisation, your industry, even your country (ask Iran). There’s lots of “woulda, coulda, shoulda.”

Stage three is all about blame with the key question focused on “why.” The spotlight is more like a floodlight. Your crisis is beamed everywhere.

Stage four

The light begins to dim in stage four, which is the fallout/resolution stage. The spotlight dims, but can easily be turned to full glare again if you slip up, or something similar happens in your industry.

Your crisis is perpetually in print, on Google, in Wikipedia – searchable and discoverable. Your “sin” or heroic act will be for everyone to see forever. You can’t take it back.

Typically, this stage marks the end of the crisis. There is some resolution. There might be a funeral, a government inquiry, or a senate hearing. Your product goes back on the shelf, workers go back to the plant, victims return to their homes.

In the case of the Thai soccer team, it will most probably be when they go back to school and/or are reunited with their families. Sadly, one angle will be the funeral of the former Thai navy seal. There will no doubt be the resolution through a cave ‘enquiry.’

The evidence is plain for all to see. Just watch the media coverage, follow the tweets, notice the Facebook posts and you will soon see the narratives played out in very predictable patterns, with very predictable questions. That’s the good news. And the bad? Well, it happens at lightning speed, so be prepared. Your reputation depends on it.

Jane Jordan is a media coach and crisis management trainer and can be contacted on jane@janejordan.com.au.

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