Handling Footage in a Campus Crisis: Your Footage

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This article is part of an ongoing series on taking your crisis communications and response planning to the next level. You’ll also want to read the previous article in the series, “Handling Footage in a Campus Crisis: Others‘ Footage.”
We also recommend this online training from Academic Impressions:
Managing Student Threats and Risk: Effective Policies and Practices

You open up your student newspaper and are confronted with a picture taken by a student. The picture depicts your university, an event or a situation that has just occurred in a less than flattering light. Mainstream media picks up that picture, as do various social media sites. Your challenge: how to counter the negative impressions those particular visuals likely have created in the minds of various constituent audiences.

There is probably not a one of us who doesn’t recall any number of “first impressions” of crises that have occurred over the past decade as the direct result of pictures taken by citizen photo journalists, also called “participatory journalists.” One only has to think of the landing on the Hudson, captured not only by first-responding rescuers in nearby boats, but also by security cameras along the riverfront. Citizen photojournalists also captured the moment the bomb exploded at the finish line at the Boston Marathon, and the armed SWAT teams moving into Columbine High School and Virginia Tech.

Other notable visuals include the photo taken by Kent State student John Filo, who captured the highly recognized 1970 photo of the Kent State shootings, and the bank employee  who captured a photo of a baby being carried by a firefighter moments after the Oklahoma City bombing; that photo later won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography. In more recent years, photo bloggers captured images of the unrest during the Occupy Wall Street events.

Telling a Memorable Story in the Midst of a Crisis

All of these visuals, which many consider to be iconic photographs, became images that were imprinted on our minds forever. Was the imprinting simply due to the fact that the image was the first visual of the crisis?

Or was it something in the visual that grabbed…and held…our attention in perpetuity?

In most cases, it’s the latter. For that reason, it’s critical that any visuals you take and post also grab, then hold, the viewer’s attention.

But how do you do that? How do you not just take a good picture, but a picture that tells a memorable story?

Tips for Creating that Memorable Story

I spoke again with a former photojournalist at a New York Times subsidiary, Jamie Moncrief, to get some tips on what makes a great visual during times of crisis. Here is what Moncrief shared with me:

  • Make sure that the photo or video provides a new and different perspective from what is already out there in the media, be that traditional or social media. If everyone is taking shots at ground level, consider visuals while perched in a tree or peering through a window several stories high. Savvy photographers and videographers stay out of the “media gaggles” – those gatherings of journalists one finds on the periphery of the event, who all seem to capture essentially the same photograph.
  • If everyone else is focusing on the victims, focus on the survivors and the families of the survivors. Better yet, focus on the hard-working, first responders who may be putting their lives at risk to keep your students and your campus community safe.
  • To the degree that you can, and without intruding on the victims or their families, try to capture the emotion of the crisis. While others may be capturing the agony of the moment, take photos that capture the victories. Show the individuals who have overcome the tragedy and/or the family members who are rejoicing that their loved one was rescued.
  • Arrive early and stay late, because some of the most memorable visual moments can happen before or after a scheduled press event.

Tips for Sharing that Memorable Story

Once you have these memorable visuals, make sure that you share them through every communication vehicle at your disposal.

  • First and foremost, leverage your university’s social media sites by posting visuals on a regular basis. Once you lose your social media sites to the “shared” postings from news media sites, it’s hard to regain control of the message.
  • Leverage your visuals on your own web pages, especially on those pages that offer individuals an opportunity to send messages to victims and their families or your university community.
  • Post visuals on your in-house communication vehicles to keep faculty and staff informed.
  • Leverage your own list-servs and databases by sending your visuals, and even captions, to your key target audiences: prospective students, donors, alumni, etc. For a site intended for alumni, try and get a visual of alumni who may be helping in the recovery effort; use these visuals for your alumni magazine.
  • Tell your institution’s story by posting multimedia projects that offer a beginning, a middle, and an end; most viewers appreciate the format and will willingly share your multimedia posts with friends and followers, especially if those visuals are emotionally moving.
  • Most media outlets now have their own Facebook and Twitter sites – you can “counter” negative photography by posting your official images to those sites.
  • Virginia Tech set up a website called “We Remember” that featured visuals highlighting the spontaneous memorials occurring all around the nation following the shooting. To this day, their page links back to active “remembrance sites” and is regularly updated, showing the lasting effect the tragedy has had on the institution.
  • Last, but not least, use your visuals to accompany your press releases.

Keeping these considerations in mind will help put you in a better position to influence the story that gets told about your institution during and after a tragedy, rather than allowing that story to be told solely by external — and potentially misinformed — perspectives.