Monday, October 19, 2009

Balloon Boy Hoax: Controlling the Media

The story riveted the world. A little boy climbs into an improvised backyard balloon and it carries him thousands of feet in the air. Will he make it to the ground safely? Will he drop from the sky? It was terrifying to watch for anyone whether or not they had kids. Finally the good news: the little boy is found safe at home! A happy ending in a world of too many tragic stories.

It was only after the relief subsided that the questions surfaced. What in the world was the family thinking, building a craft so attractive to small children that had the potential with the tug of a rope to carry them thousands of feet in the air? How did the family not know to check all potential hiding places for their son? Why was a video immediately posted on You Tube showing the family oddly counting down the launch of the balloon and only after it was aloft suddenly hearing their son had crawled inside? Also, as my husband and balloonists on CNN pointed out- how could a balloon that looked barely strong enough to carry a brick, support the weight of a 6 year old child?

Questions equal suspicion in the media world. Inconsistent answers feed the flame of guilt. A central figure with a background of shameless self-promotion is pretty much the nail in the coffin of sentencing in the court of public opinion.

A Larry King producer told us as she was sitting in the living room of the family waiting to get them on air for the infamous interview where Falcon Heene spilled the beans that the stunt was "for the show". She says she was amazed at the media's circus-like atmosphere. Morning show producers were arguing with each other, jockying for which media outlet would get the first interview with the family the next day, reporters were refusing to leave the Heene home, for fear they wouldn't be let back in. A neighbor friend was charged with guarding the front door to keep out the curious. Her story reminded me of the first rule of good media relations: Control.

In a media feeding frenzy control what you can, and that starts with the environment. Restrict access to one reporter at a time, if you have decided its in your best interest to grant interviews. This is a simple fact that is easily forgotten in the thick of battle- choose to grant interviews based on what is best for YOU NOT the media.

Next, choose what you will say, choose three themes and speak to those and only those.

Finally, share with reporters camped outside your home or office a printed statement that expresses those statements and be sure to include what you expect will happen next. List a contact name and number for future questions.

Tomorrow what Richard Heene SHOULD have communicated to the media...

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