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The Bottomless News Hole and You

[By Howard Fencl, Hennes Communications]

It’s everywhere.

You check your Twitter feed. Read a news website or the daily paper. Turn on Nightly News or NPR. It’s an unrelenting and punishing tidal wave of political news pounding us over and over again. The slightest new wrinkle in a political drama, the smallest blip on Wall Street after a draconian political pronouncement, the most trifling early morning tweet from the White House executive residence will summon a sea of news satellite trucks and breathless correspondents panting into stick mics on contrived live shots. Watch cable news for more than a few minutes, and you’ll hear the same report over and over again. It’s framed as “BREAKING NEWS” spelled out on the screen in Avengers superhero font, though you likely saw the “news” break on your Twitter feed hours ago.

How did we get here?

Thank the 24/7 news cycle and the concomitant explosion of news on the web and social media. Reporters, producers and editors suffer daily anxiety attacks trying to figure out how to “feed the beast.” The days of TV reporters putting in an eight hour shift only to file a one minute and thirty second news story are long gone. Reporters are now under pressure to deliver a constant stream of content throughout their shift to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media platforms in addition to their organization’s traditional broadcast or print products.

Frankly, you run out of stuff to report. In response, network and cable TV recycle stories throughout the day. Print reporters practice “iterative journalism,”  publishing scraps of their assignment at the start of their shift on web and social media sites, adding narrative and interviews as they build their stories throughout the day.

And on slow news days – which, frankly, is most days – politics is low-hanging fruit. It’s easy to take any political tidbit; assign victim, villain and vindicator roles to pump up drama and conflict; grab a few quick interviews, and voila! Suddenly, you have “news” to promote to your audience.

“Spot” news (which truly is breaking news) also makes it easy to fill the gaping maw of the 24/7 news hole. Terrorist attacks, fatal fires, natural disasters and other cataclysms are welcome respite from endless political coverage for many editors and producers.

You are no doubt guessing that there’s a caveat for you and your organization in all this, and you’re correct: When your business is in crisis mode, the media, hungry to feed that bottomless news hole, will descend on you in droves. If your issue is serious enough, newsroom managers will instruct their staff to “go big” on the story – meaning they will throw every available reporter and all available technical resources at the story and cover it from every angle they can brainstorm. And they’ll do follow-up stories for days, weeks or months more depending on the severity of the crisis.

The best insurance investment you can make: Have a crisis communications plan ready to roll out when it hits the fan. Before a crisis hits, sit all your department heads down and ask them what keeps them awake at night. Write internal and external communications for all those scenarios and have your general counsel approve them so they’re ready to push out the moment a crisis strikes, assuring your story is told in the first round of news coverage. Designate your crisis response team. Commit the time to practice a scenario of two in a tabletop drill with that team.

The alternative is bleak. Without a plan, you risk your organization’s reputation – your largest uninsured asset. And you may ultimately invite an existential crisis of your own making for the business you have worked so hard to build.

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Howard Fencl is vice president of Hennes Communication.  He managed TV newsrooms for nearly two decades.

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