Breaking News Doesn’t Have to Break Other News Anymore

In our industry, it pays to be prepared for a crisis. We need to know what to do and how to respond in the event of an accident, a physical altercation, an unexpected leadership change, a lawsuit…you name it. Luckily, we don’t often have to put that preparation and practice to use, but it’s good to know that we’re ready if that time ever comes. Unfortunately, there’s one thing we can’t prepare for: breaking news. Breaking news can turn an otherwise normal day (or week) of marketing into something completely different. As the times have changed, though, so too have our opportunities and avenues to mitigate the impacts of breaking news. Contrast the following:

Back on September 11, 2001, I was working in my office early in the morning when news came across the wires about the attack on the Twin Towers. In an instant, everything changed – clearly for our country, but also for every company in America. Lost were the PR and advertising opportunities that companies had relied on for decades. Journalists covered nothing else. Advertisers smartly didn’t want to promote their latest sales in a time of national tragedy. And social media didn’t exist. The only client of ours the media wanted to talk to was The Space Needle and that was to find out if they were going to be open or closed since no one at the time still knew the extent of the attacks and if more were coming. Given the situation, companies around the country scrapped their marketing plans, suspended their budgets and, in many cases, had to completely refresh their approach to marketing. I’m not suggesting this was bad or wrong, rather just stating the facts.

Now fast forward to last Friday morning. I was with my colleague, client and our celebrity partner in the Green Room at FOX News in Chicago getting ready to do a four-minute live TV segment about a fun, new, engaging website for people in Chicago and around the country. Then news broke about the movie theatre shooting in Aurora, Colo. And, once again, everything changed. We were politely told that we would no longer have a segment, the one we’d worked for weeks to arrange. Cancelling was the right thing to do, both for the station and for the client. The news media needed to cover the developing story and we didn’t want to interrupt the intense coverage with an upbeat “Hey, Chicago, look at this great new resource for you”-style piece. It was the wrong time.

I’m not suggesting that these two tragedies have anything more in common than that they captured the nation’s attention (and rightfully so). What I am suggesting is that 11 years ago, breaking news would have meant a completely lost opportunity and there’d be no chance to revive it. Thanks to technological progress and the advent of social media, however, the impact of today’s breaking news on other businesses is less intense.

Let me be clear: companies should not necessarily be ignoring the world around them and be promoting their sales and other things on Facebook and Twitter while the rest of the country’s media is covering a major story. Companies and their PR agencies need to be smart and strategic about when to re-engage with the public, but a breaking news story is no longer as paralyzing as it once was. With the proliferation of cable stations, social media, blogs and other outlets, companies can continue their dialogue with their audiences even if a particular medium is lost to them due to breaking news.

To me, that’s a good thing. It means that tragedy can no longer completely consume us and take away every outlet for discussion. It means that the bad guys don’t win because as individuals and businesses, we can move on and re-engage, giving psychopaths less of what they want – our undivided attention.

As I said earlier, no one ever wants to be confronted with a crisis situation. But it’s nice to know that when one does arise – especially one that has nothing to do with us – that the recovery from the crisis is now faster than it was a decade ago.