Handling Footage in a Campus Crisis: Others’ Footage

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This article is part of an ongoing series by Cindy Lawson on taking your crisis communications and response planning to the next level. The previous articles in the series include:
Presidents’ Advice for Campus Leaders in a Crisis
Social Media Triage: How to Create a Social Media Incident Command

The crisis hits unexpectedly. My mind kicks into gear. My first thoughts are: get the facts, determine the messaging and identify who needs to receive which messages, how often and through what mechanisms.

We know this drill. However, not once in all the myriad of crises I managed during my more than 30-year career have I ever asked, “What pictures do I need? Should I take any at all? For what purpose? Should we use them on a website or disseminate via social media?” I have posted pictures of vigils or presidents speaking at press conferences, but short of that, it’s been the farthest thing from my mind.

Yet why should this be the case? If a picture says a thousand words, why isn’t it at the forefront of my mind? It should be.

As I recently grappled with these questions, I interviewed Jamie Moncrief, a former photojournalist now working in higher education. While working for a New York Times affiliate newspaper, he covered numerous crises. Six months ago, I hired him to work for me here at DePaul University in Chicago. Our discussion led to the following ideas and suggestions:

  • The first visual that “gets hung” is the first visual that gets shared. To the degree you can, have your university post visuals as soon as possible. Make sure that pictures and videos are visually interesting and not only tell “the story,” but also “your” story.
  • Reporters and photojournalists want to be the first on the scene – the first to break the story.  Upon arriving at a crisis, most photo- and video-journalists will stay together.  It’s a gaggle mentality.  After all, no one wants a competing news outlet to scoop a story.  Holding frequent press briefings every 30 minutes to update media keeps journalists close by…in the gaggle.  They don’t want to miss anything.
  • Beware of secret squirrels.  The time quickly comes when a replacement photo/video journalist will arrive to relieve the first person, who likely will leave the gaggle to scout the area for “unique” pictures.  Like squirrels, they will jump fences, crawl under hedges, climb trees or do whatever is necessary to get “the” picture.  Do you restrict them, or do you try to help?  Err on the side of assisting them.
  • In an era of layoffs and non-existent resources, most journalists have become platypuses.  More often than not, they have to play the role of both reporter and visual specialist.  As such, they may lack the proficiency of either reporting or visual story-telling.  To that end, provide visual opportunities to reporters whose time and visual skill set may be limited.
  • Most journalists and photojournalists listen to police scanners. But your campus uses secure channels, correct? You’re naïve if you think that journalists don’t have the ability to listen. Indeed, journalists have the right to listen. The FCC says the media and public can monitor radio frequencies used by police and fire, so it’s no wonder that they get to the scene so quickly.  If you don’t have a police scanner in your public relations office, consider acquiring one.  Listening not only will keep you apprised about what is transpiring real time, it also will let you know what reporters are hearing.  And, if necessary, you may want to remind your campus security team to keep their “chatter” down.
  • Share other visuals throughout the duration of a crisis.  Make sure the final images depict a successful recovery, vigil or a memorial.  Show the world that your university is more than an institution; it’s a family that truly cares for one another.

Keeping these considerations in mind will help put you in a better position to influence visual messages, rather than allowing those visual messages to be driven solely by external perspectives.

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