Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Paris Attacks: Lessons Learned from the Media

The attacks in Paris last week were horrific, and they graphically showed a dark side that remains on our earth. At the same time, there was an outpouring of solidarity for the victims, city of Paris, and country of France. My sympathies go out to the victims’ families and other people who were affected by this event. As did millions of others across the world, I watched in horror as the aftermath became increasingly clear.

Fortunately, the media were there almost instantaneously reporting on the events, and journalists from dozens of countries were on the ground within hours. Viewers were dependent on professional reporting to present accurate and up-to-date information on what was known about all things related to the attacks.

What got my attention in the hours and days after November 13 were the facts, speculation, and revised statements about what happened. News reports after a major catastrophe are, in my view, always a developing story. We learn a little bit at the beginning, increasingly more as the hours and days go on, and if we’re lucky, one day we get the truth about what really happened. That is just the way it goes with big and complicated events such as the attacks.

I noticed three media trends develop over the past week, and I want to mention them today and show how they relate to us in our daily lives. The lessons learned thus far from the Paris news coverage are directly applicable to us at work and elsewhere.

1. Initial accounts are seldom true or complete; facts change.

There was simply too much going on in the hours and first day or so after the events to know exactly what happened, how it happened, why it happened, and who did it. This may seem obvious, and that is why I am pointing it out today. It is noted that the media is not privy to all the information that law enforcement and intelligence agencies know at any particular moment, so it would make sense that the French authorities would withhold some of their information for fear of compromising their investigation.

In the attacks, I noticed that it took about a half-day before we began to get solid and credible information. Some of this differed substantially from the initial reports on the night of the attacks. Was it one group that attacked all locations, or were there multiple teams that had different missions? In what order did the attacks occur? Were all the assailants dead as was initially reported, or, as we later found out, did one escape into the night? Again, this is just the way it is: Not all information is known at the beginning.

That is why we who work in or with organizations must be relentlessly proactive at the beginning of an assignment or project, regardless of the scope. For us to get all the information we need to make decisions or adjust course, this information gathering is heavy at the beginning while it remains constant and intense throughout the project. Information gathering never ends, nor should it. In the macro and micro environments in which we operate, change is inevitable and the facts and assumptions change frequently. Communication to, from, and throughout all levels of our organizations is key to successful outcomes.

If we are to make the right decisions along the way, we have to act just like French law enforcement and the international community are acting right now. They are relentless in their attempt to get fresh and correct information each day, because each day gives them the opportunity to get closer to the end of their most immediate problem, or project. The media are doing the same thing by being open to this truth, accepting the constant change, doing their job by validating their sources, and reporting what we should know. So for us, the lesson learned is to work hard on a project, but be open to changes in our facts, assumptions, and environments so that we too can succeed at what we’re doing.

2. If someone says something is true, that is not necessarily so.

During the Paris coverage over the past week, we heard from witnesses and news commentators who gave their opinions on what had happened and why. The first-hand witness statements tended to be accurate, though in a several instances I noticed that some people extended their testimony by making some questionable statements about what they saw happen. In addition, some witness statements directly contradicted the accounts of others. I will not judge them on this; they went through an intense and tragic situation that will haunt them for many years. 

As for the media, they reported what they knew: raw information and solid facts once verified. Yet again, there were numerous instances where a television journalist would make a statement, and the next day this would be proved false. Is it the fault of the journalists? In most cases the answer is no because that is the nature of their job; that is, report what is known, verify when necessary, and update later as facts become clear.

As a notable example, we heard at various times with authority that the weapons used in the music hall were shotguns, automatic weapons, and explosiveslots of each. As of today, we do not know exactly which weapons were used because the final report is not complete, but it would not surprise me if the mix of weapons changes, given that there are only so many types of weapons that a team of terrorists can carry without detection before an attack.

In our lives at work and elsewhere, people give us advice, answers to questions, their opinion, first-hand accounts, and what they perceive as facts. Our job is to assess this trove of information and determine which is valid, factual, and useful. What I am mentioning should not be new to you, but it bears repeating that just because someone says something is true, that does not make it true. I can give you several unbelievable personal examples of this, but I will let you explore this truism on your own. While at work, make it a personal commitment to be more discerning of the vast amount of information and so-called facts that fall into your lap.

3. If you say you’re going to do something, do it.

I observed, in general, that the television media did not overstate what they knew or what they could tell us about the attacks on Paris. News reports seemed to be refreshingly frank with the viewers. This balanced approach to their job appealed to me, and I commend it. However, I did notice three glaring missteps by two different television networks; I would be remiss if I did not mention the incidents, which all referred to one victim’s stunning tale of survival.

A Parisian was in harm’s way, and it looked like she was going to get severely injured. My issue with the television reporting is that the reporters promised to the viewer that the incredible story of the lady would soon be told to us in a few minutes. In all three cases, about 20-30 seconds were used in the story’s promotional teaser, which also told us to stay tuned to hear “all of the details.” Well, I stayed tuned, and I did not hear the details.

It turns out in all three instances, the same video footage of the lady’s ordeal was shown along with some commentary, but the networks never delivered on their promise to me, the viewer. After waiting for the networks to give me the entire story, they eventually spent around 15 seconds showing and describing 80% of the lady’s ordeal, and then her story was over with not a clue as to how it ended; then it was on to the next story. More time was spent on the buildup to the story than on the story itself. In the end, I was left hanging and begging for more information on the lady’s condition, which was never revealed. Fortunately a couple of days later, I discovered on television that the lady survived her terror and was doing well.

The lessons are not to overpromise and underdeliver; don’t renege on your promise; and don’t insult someone’s intelligence. These truths are self-evident, and we can see their use in all aspects of our daily life. When we promise to do something and don’t do it, we lose credibility and stature to those with whom we interact. Avoid it.

Next month, we’ll get back on track with some easy fixes for daily writing. Thank you for your time today, and please bookmark my blog.

Randall Ponder, Baton Rouge, Louisiana USA       @randallponder 

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