Responding To Press Questions After Deadly Accidents
Opinion Editorial written by Jason J. Baker – General aviation accident numbers have traditionally been declining – however – whenever something does happen, the “consumer news media” goes on steroids. I am not sure how many of my readers frequently find themselves on the target list of journalists looking for a hot story in their “news coverage” after aviation accidents. Yours truly is one of these people and has been for a while, probably due to my dark past of running Seaplaneforum.com.
Its very easy to fall for the tricks of the trade that get people to make statements which later lead to highly speculative articles. Those in turn, do incredible long term damage to everyone involved. Our industry as a whole, aircraft and float manufacturers, pilots of accident airplanes, passengers and especially those who are left behind after accidents which claim human life – everyone takes a hit. That’s completely ignoring the often draconian legal consequences and the financial outfall of accidents and false media coverage.
Things get worse when famous or well known people have accidents. Nobody gives a hoot if Jason Baker from Germany crashes, but things look mighty different for John Travolta, retired Baseball Star Roy Halladay, or famous Hollywood actor Harrison Ford and many others. Once Fox News or CNN pick up on the story, the proverbial crap hits the fan quickly. So, how is it that those who get the expert calls after an accident can’t stay silent?
Sweet Talking & Ego Stroking
Tabloid reporters are awesome at handing out insincere praise to trick people into believing that they are considered “chosen experts”. This may sound something like this: “Mr. Smith, your name has been referred to me as a well known expert on seaplanes and you’re quite an accomplished pilot yourself?”. Most pilots you hit with this will eventually fall into the habit of counting off all their various certificates, tell a two sentence story about how they once did a low pass over hungry alligators or begin panting about all their flight experience. The reporter will pretend to be impressed and exclaim something like “Oh, Wow! Am I glad I got you on the phone!”
That’s enough to stroke most egos into talking fairly authoritatively on subjects which, in truth, are fairly foreign to them. People like to be admired and people like to be considered experts who help reporters write good stories. Its simple Psychology 101 and I don’t think ill of people who wish to help.
Is There A Standard Response?
Well substantiated information-flow and the absence of speculation are imperative after an accident involving a general aviation aircraft. How do affected companies deal with the issue? Those lucky enough to have a legal team and public relations liaison at their hands, can quickly draft standard statements which make the speculation stop, at least at their doorstep.
“We regret to have learned of our customer XYZ being involved in this accident and our company and staff will do what is necessary to aid the NTSB/ Authorities in their investigation. Please understand that we cannot engage in speculation or second guessing, nor can we make statements about the possible cause for the incident/ accident.”
Not making statements about the possible cause of the accident is mission-critical. The job of the public relations liaison isn’t to teach lessons of piety to people who have none, its to protect the company from harm like social media shit-storming, trolling and severe legal implications. Often its smart to temporarily take social media presences down and brief staff on staying silent on topic. This “circling the wagons” is more a legal necessity, than a deliberate act of avoiding the free flow of information. Solid shit-storming on Facebook running unchecked will show its ugly face, months and years after an incident. By the time official accident reports are published, the world has moved on – by then, only those reading those reports can learn from them. The press barely goes back in time and rights the record.
Can Joe Pilot Help Avoid Fake News?
Yes, there are good news. Every pilot, active or retired, low-time or high-time, with lots of certificates or just one and even those with a million hours of flight experience, can play their part in avoiding rampant speculation, second guessing and hair-raising reporting on aviation accidents. Simply begin by trying to imagine it was YOU having that accident or incident!
Would you want fellow pilots to speak as if they knew what kind of a Flying Cowboy you were in your per-carnage flying days? Would you want someone who had their pilot certificates and medical revoked by the NTSB calling the news stations all over the country to convince them that the airplane you were flying was a death trap, or you were unfit to fly? Would you want an 80 year old ex private pilot from a gated community in Florida explain how flying seaplanes in Australia or Alaska works; or how crazy deadly the flying of seaplanes can be? Should I venture a guess about your answer? I know mine!
Sensation = Clicks = Advertising Revenue
Every-time someone from within our community aids in the production of sensational news, we actively raise the ad revenue of tabloids and do damage to an industry that has a traditionally difficult standing with the news media. General Aviation often appears to be hit extra hard by the ignorance of the news-consuming populace. News reporters are paid by the “popularity” of their content. The more carnage and eyes they can catch and glue to the content, the higher their net income.
Don’t Be A Tool
Aviators need to be aware that they are considered tools in making that net income go up. The problem isn’t that Dave Schmuck at XYZ News spoke with Joe Pilot who solved the mystery on the spot, during a 20 minute phone interview – the problems start when Dave Schmuck’s article becomes the base soup for the big name outlets, which buy this content and run it all the way to the top. Ask Harrison Ford how it feels to make national news for a bad hair day and mistaking a taxiway for a runway.
Train Yourself To Speak With Two Tongues
Remember the hand-propping incident with the Cirrus a few weeks ago? The video was viral within minutes of the incident. Facebook turned into a shit-storm sinkhole second to none within a day and it was shameful. Everybody and their grandma ended up having conversations about a guy who screwed up.
When I speak to a fellow pilot about the incident I may choose different words to describe my impressions, than I would with anyone from a tabloid, looking for the kill. Speaking with two tongues means to be a bit more sensible and careful when a conversation happens with a non-pilot, especially with a tabloid writer. They love fancy words, almost never fact check anything and change side statements during a conversation into headlines, if needed.
Demand To See What Is Published
Its imperative for me to know what a reporter has before I make statements and it would be more than helpful to see the article before it goes to print or online. Interviewees with some experience will correct falsehoods before they go into publication and if required, ask for their statements to be removed. If previewing isn’t possible or offered, a standard statement that’s really useless should suffice. I often flat-out decline to comment at all, referring to the accident investigation being underway. Its a simple way to keep this all hassle free.
Remember: News articles answer 5 basic W questions, not really more and not really less. Everything added to it is either hyperbole or sensationalism or yellow journalism in disguise of being investigative journalism. Offering up theories or adding to the speculation frenzy accomplished nothing. We need neither of those in our industry – in fact I think we need some peace and quiet and a substantially different way to deal with the press. The world has enough “experts”. Lets not kill ourselves from within our own ranks.
Jason Baker works as a freelance writer and marketing & advertising consultant. He holds a commercial pilot certificate (SEL/SES/MEL), instrument rating as well as advanced & instrument ground instructor certificate. Jason is the owner & managing editor of Seaplanemagazine.com. For more information about consulting services offered, click on Consulting & Services. Advertising spots for 2019 are being offered now. If your company wishes to appear here in 2019, the time to get in touch is now.