Memphis in all the big media headlines this week took our community by surprise reporting the historic flood of 2011 and showing the absolute worst pictures and images of a flood that has impacted just 1% of our City. Now I will say right here that this post is not meant to be insensitve to those who are affected. I am writing this from a public relations perspective and from my own personal observations and experience dealing with media and crisis management. I think we (our whole community) underestimated the power of the national media and their ability to portray things differently than they happened.
Am I being too harsh on the media? I’m not sure, but when Al Roker is standing in 3-4′ of water broadcasting from downtown Memphis (which is not flooded) is that really representing the real story? I don’t think so. Yes, we have a swollen river and record flooded farm land, blown levees and some displaced and some flooded (which is terrible)–but “Memphis Flooded?” No way. Not even close. I thought it ironic that Monday the media showcased the worst pictures and Monday night, Memphis was live on TNT showing the dry and packed FedEx Forum where the Grizzlies played another playoff game (go Grizz). And by the way, just how far is the FedEx Forum from the river anyway?
What I think we missed Monday was the opportunity to tell our national flood story differently–as an event to be witnessed from the safety of our Bluff. Although flood warnings were issued and evacuations we made by some (less than 1,000), we missed an opportunity to tell the world that Memphis is safe–for the most part–when so much water threatens. Instead, the media descended upon us and showed the world only the worst of pictures, many of which weren’t even in Memphis. Water under the bridge? I think there are always opportunities for reflection and learning to constantly improve our processes.
As a result of all this underwater publicity, people have cancelled trips here for our annual Memphis In May BBQ Championship contest, cancelled business trips (I know of several clients directly impacted by this) and no telling what else we don’t know. Further, will people just remember the horrible pictures and think “I’m not going to that city…if it floods like that.” Maybe. Maybe not. I don’t mean to be negative or underestimate real dangers and threats our emergency managment officials were dealing with. I just think the PR and communications during a crisis is as essential as operations. That being said, here are some take aways and lessons learned:
We could have safely promoted the flood as a historic event to be witnessed safely from our Bluff (not a hill) as people are doing anyway. Downtown has never been so busy with pedestrians coming to see the Mississippi River and Riverside Drive. While we don’t make light of those people who are affected–from an economic development perspective, having so many people come downtown is a plus for our city.
We could have given the national media better places from which to broadcast, asking that they respect our economic development and not allow them to tell their story in 4′ of water that obviously sent a different message.
Our #Memflood tag on Twitter went viral and was picked up by the national media. As I believe Twitter is the trip wire for spreading and breaking news, if I were in charge, the Twitter strategy would have been mandated and promoted by as many as possible. As a community, we have the opportunity–through Twitter–to be as loud as we want and can talk directly to the national and local media who use Twitter. Our emergency management personnel and city, county leadership need to understand and utilize this Twitter voice.
Communications to local media should also be coordinated (and maybe it was but Memphis was never “under seige” as one station reported) and need to understand the long term consequences of sensationalizing events–especially in a crisis.
As this flood continues, it will be interesting to learn more examples like these when it comes to perceptions vs. reality. Do you have a story to share about this? How do you feel about the national coverage of the flood here in Memphis? I’d love to know. Thanks for reading this! GO GRIZZ! GO MEMPHIS!