Sensationalism, scalability and the source of truth

By Emily Byrne

The media love to sensationalise reporting of emergencies to sell newspapers, while social gets in a flop sweat at a moment’s notice to generate clicks and comment. That’s the world we live in, but it can cause a world of pain for crisis managers trying to overcome an emergency and is why communicating dispassionate advice to staff is of prime importance. If staff only get their information from Twitter, they are likely to believe the worst.

Holborn blaze lights up the press

Thousands of people were forced to evacuate their homes and offices during the Kingsway Holborn fire in April 2015 which raged for 36 hours, affecting hundreds of businesses and thousands of tenants. At the time the Metro reported clouds of ‘billowing smoke’ with people ‘struggling to breathe’. It was a significant event.

In comparison, a fire at the Law Society in Holborn which took place on the evening of Saturday 1st February 2020 was on a much smaller scale. Around twenty people evacuated the building before firefighters arrived and a further eleven residents thought it wise to leave their homes. Not much of a story you might think, but that didn’t stop the media getting stuck in.

Paul Tennant, Law Society Chief Executive commented: “The ordeal wasn’t nearly as harrowing as some media reports suggested. We weren’t forced to ‘flee for our lives’ as the Mirror had reported at the time.”

The Evening Standard reported “parts of the six-story were still alight at 7am” the next morning and emphasised 150 firefighters were needed to tackle the blaze. It highlighted the historical importance of the 18th Century building – particularly the Reading Room and library with its archives dating back to the 16th Century. Just one problem: They all remained  entirely unaffected, and it should be stressed, no-one was injured.

Social source

Social media now has the ability to create a crisis where no crisis exists.

Crisis-gate ensued in Oxford Circus in 2017 after Olly Murs tweeted: “F**k everyone get out of Selfridges now gun shots!! I’m inside.”

Panic reigned on Oxford Street with tweets hashtagging Oxford Street or tagging the Met Police leaping from less than 20 every 10 minutes to almost 4,000 in the same time period. Stores were invacuating shoppers to keep them safe until the police issued a tweet saying there was no evidence of shots being fired or suspects located. The incident can only be described as a storm in a teacup.

A mildly humorous twitter-spat then ensued between Murs and Piers Morgan – enjoy it below.

tweets-01Chris Phillips, International Security and Counter-Terrorism Expert argues that “when a crisis happens, you’ve got an hour, two hours, maybe six hours where you have to act quickly and correctly if you’re to get a positive outcome.”

Due to social media platforms like Twitter, this golden window of opportunity to gather the facts and establish an accurate account of events has perhaps shrunk even further.

In the opening moments of a crisis, reporters are glued to their twitter feeds and the accuracy of some of their reporting can be called into question. The days of getting two reputable sources before publication are long gone. In the digital sphere facts can be misconstrued and rumours spread at the speed of a keystroke.

Adding Fuel to the Fire: Lessons to Be Learnt

Our response to scaremongering and our increased societal paranoia can unwittingly turn an event into a sensationalist pantomime. We should be wary of our readiness to believe unverified accounts on social media, instead waiting for official statements issued by authorities.

Some publications amplify the substantial terror threat level, leading us to question how over-embellished their reports really are. The boundaries between providing news for informative purposes and providing fast news for entertainment have become blurred. Our hunger for fast news can overhaul the provision of accuracy and truth.

Crisis managers should make sure staff don’t get all of their information from the media and provide dispassionate facts along with practical steps on what employees must do should a genuine crisis hit.

Header image by Gemma Smith, Graphic Designer at YUDU


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