The Accidental PIO: Karma is a Bee-eye-itch … But a Good Teacher

Reporter reaction when you start going over the ground rules

I was a really sneaky TV news photog. The shot was more important than anything else and my only job was to get the shot that would help tell a story.

You know the kind, right? Always trying to go off on their own to get the shot that’s in their head. Pretending to listen when you explain the safety rules (including where they can or can’t be) but you know they’re rolling through their mental list of shots.

In Fort Smith, Ark., as a young 20-something photog for the local ABC affiliate, I drove onto the site of an ammonia leak. After I was out of my vehicle with camera on my shoulder, someone with the company stopped me and said: “You can’t be in here. If the wind shifts and a train comes in (the property was bisected by train tracks, potentially blocking the only point of entry/exit) you’ll be stuck.” My response? “I’ll take that chance.” And I kept moving. We got the only live shot inside the facility. Thankfully, the wind didn’t shift and there was no train.

Also in Fort Smith, I “tagged along” with law enforcement as they chased a suspect into Oklahoma. He ran into his trailer as we all pulled up, knocked out a window and started shooting. The cops ducked behind their vehicles. I stayed standing to get the shot … until one of the officers pulled me down behind the engine block so I wouldn’t get – well, shot.

I was young and stupid and distanced from the action by the camera lens. And karma was a foreign concept.

In 2010, during Enbridge’s response to the Line 6b release of crude oil near Marshall, Mich., I met “me.” A reporter for a small regional advocacy publication, he purchased his own personal protective equipment (PPE) and snuck into safety meetings held each morning for response workers. No-one checked his badge (media had a different color badge than response workers so it would have been really obvious) because he looked like everyone else in his PPE.

He broke a number of stories this way, but perhaps the biggest was the use of undocumented workers by a sub-contractor … bussed to Michigan from Texas. When this broke, we asked the contractor to produce paperwork on everyone employed by their sub-contractor. Not long after that, literally in the middle of the night, the sub bussed them back to Texas where – when they stopped for food east of Houston – immigration raided the bus.

What did I learn?

  1. Training is essential. Not just on messaging and how to handle an interview, but make your field staff practice checking credentials.
  2. Build this into your exercise scenarios as an inject to the Master Scenario Event List (MSEL). After this happened, I started pretending to be media sneaking into a response site for exercises and drills. It was an eye opener.
  3. It’s essential that ground rules are clearly established with response contractors regarding media. If something is truly their issue, they should be responsible for handling their own media relations. In this case, the contractor flat-out refused to take media calls. That meant I had to handle their issue along with everything else specific to the response.

And, yes, we all know that Karma really can be a bitch. But the lessons along the way were worth it.

 

 

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