Managing Media on the Dropzone
Whether for positive or negative reasons, every dropzone in the world should expect a visit from local news media at some point in time or another. This is a short guide to help you best understand how to manage modern media on the dropzone.
For starters, understand that the media generally considers skydiving as an "extreme sport" so they're often willing to portray it from a perspective using terms like "dare-devils," "Adrenaline junkies," "thrill-seekers," and so forth. It's not necessary to encourage these labels; they'll exist anyway.
Remember always, that any press is good press, but well-managed press is GREAT for the DZ and the sport. INVITING THE MEDIA TO AN EVENT AT THE DROPZONE
If you've got an event at the dropzone, such as a celebrity jump, someone's Xthousandth, a war hero, multiple generations of a family, competitions, special guests, etc, you'll likely want to invite the media. It's not quite as easy as it may seem. Here are some rules and practices of etiquette that will enhance your chances of succeeding in bringing the media to the dropzone.
-Send a short press release no further than four weeks out. Follow up two weeks out. Follow up one week out, and send a final release the day before the event. Press releases should NEVER be longer than one page.
-Make sure the press release contains at least two contact phone numbers. At least one of those numbers should be an after-hours number. It should also CLEARLY state the date and time the event is taking place.
-Include some action statements and if you're creative, you might consider generating one or two subtle headlines. "The Family that Jumps Together, Lands Together," "World-Record Skydiver Visits XXXX Dropzone," "Human Birdmen Flock to XXX Dropzone," etc. These headlines will almost assuredly not be used, but will spark the creativity of the reporter or editing staff, and most importantly, the assignments desk.
-Have a place for the media at your dropzone. Assign a dropzone liason to stay with the media during the entire event. This person is not only there to answer any questions, but to also guide the media to safe areas during landings, help them to find the best angle with safety in mind (they'll almost always want the sun at the back of the camera operator), and more importantly, act as their friend during what is likely an unusual experience. It's a good idea to have cold bottled water on hand if it's a hot day. They're your guests, treat them as such. The person assigned to act as a media liason should be well-spoken and well-groomed.
Articulation is very important. Remember, this person is representing YOUR dropzone and our sport to the masses. He/she may not appear on camera, but if he/she will appear on camera, be sure they're wearing clean, non-wrinkled clothing with neatly groomed hair. They should be able to start and complete a sentence without "ummmmm," or showing a lack of confidence. They should be able to smile and speak with a slowed cadence. If it's an exciting event, great. But fast speech is slurred in most instances, unless they're a trained speaker. They should know the language of "sound bites." Like it or not, the MOST airtime your event will receive is 2.5 minutes and that length of time is fairly rare. Being able to speak in concise, clear sentences will assure that you'll get maximum airtime, and likely increase the chances of the media wanting to return for future events. RULES OF ETIQUETTE
-Don't send photos or video via email before the event. Send links to downloadables, links to photos, or make it clear that photos and video will be made available on the day of the event.
-Don't ask a reporter if they received your email.
-Don't ask for a copy of the story. If you want it badly enough, go get a copy for yourself. The reporter has other things to do. Your event is a big deal to you; to them...it's just another story.
-Never provide gifts of any kind to reporters. It's bad form, and could be misconstrued.
-Don't expect reporters to do tandems. If they ask, great. If not, don't push. Some reporters have clauses in their contracts that prevent them from doing anything considered to be a "high risk." You don't want to be known as the dropzone that broke the reporters leg or tailbone.
-Don't call reporters during deadline hours. It's a good idea to ask a reporter when the best time to reach them might be. Don't repeatedly call; it may be seen as harassment. Don't be "that guy."
-Don't spam every reporter at the media source. If you don't have a cultivated contact, send email to the City Desk or assignments editor.
DEALING WITH THE MEDIA IN TIMES OF AN INCIDENT
"If it bleeds, it leads." Period. That's ALWAYS the axiom of the news media. Deal with it. Death, mayhem, corruption make for more interesting stories that up ratings. Depending on the story, it can quickly go huge. Cases in point, my own incident went nationwide due to my small celebrity stature. Another case in point, the guy that dropped his paraplane into a crowd and injured six people, including small children. Both generally small stories, but mine occurred on a slow news day, and the paraplane story had great footage from an amatuer camera. Understand you can't stop this from occurring, and trying to keep the media away from injuries or fatalities only piques the interest and will make your dropzone look as though you've something to hide. You cannot win against the Fourth Estate. Deal with it.
If you have a fatality or unusual incident, you should; -have someone pre-designated to speak to the press. This is critical, and this person hopefully has already rehearsed or has spoken to the press before. As previously mentioned, this person should be capable of articulate, intelligent speech.
-NEVER speak off the record. Ever. There is no "Just between you and me" with reporters. Ever. Gossip is the fodder on which they eat. Shut your mouth.
-Do not provide details about an incident; it's usually too early to provide details anyway, depending on how quickly the press arrives at your dropzone. This is not the time for some arrogant, ego-driven jackass to be promoting his authority on the subject of skydiving. Merely by appearing on camera will give an air of authority, and a brief sound bite is all that is needed. Later, we'll look at some general methods of speaking.
-Do not allow the press to shoot images of any aftermath if possible. There are alternatives to managing this better, such as a Crisis Kit or EPK (Electronic Press Kit). Every dropzone should have one of these.
-If you have footage of the incident occurring, the DZO, DZM, or S&TA should be given a copy, and its usually a good idea to have the videographer turn over the original work so it doesn't show up on YouTube or similar. Bear in mind that any video may be retained by the police or investigators as evidence. Fatalities are treated as a crime scene in most areas. Help, don't hinder. Skydivers are our own worst enemies. Case in point, at the USPA Board of Directors meeting, I was informed that the FAA has watched several wingsuits buzzing tandems. They're watching. They've also watched videos of DZ's busting clouds and I'm aware of at least one DZ that was visited and ramped, simply due to a video of skydivers busting clouds. Keep a tight lid on footage of incidents and have someone worthy of responsibility and sound judgement decide what to do with the footage. This is why one reason I've encouraged my home DZ to institute a "Work for Hire." Tandem footage or hired aerial camera footage belongs to the DZ, not the camera flyer.
-Keep statements short and as glib as possible. Here is an actual (shortened) transcript of a Dropzone Operator speaking to the press; "The guy was doing a low turn, he turned low with his toggles, turning too close to the ground. When the parachute turns close to the ground, it loses altitude and his body slammed into the ground. He made a mistake and he's now badly hurt. We'd talked to him about low turns before but he just kept doing them...." The DZ rep was still talking as the press cut back to the news room. In other words, he desperately needed to show his superior intelligence about the sport of skydiving and was reveling in his 15 minutes of fame. And wouldn't shut up. Not good. For anyone involved. Additionally, the end result of this poor presentation is that the skydiver ended up having his insurance company challenge various aspects of their payments, citing that he willfully put himself in a bad situation by turning low, and that he was negligent. Do you really want to put one of your buddies in that situation regardless of what may have occurred? Finally, if you're hot-headed, avoid being near the press. Incidents are emotional, and hot-heads and high emotions don't mix with the media. A recent incident had a skydiver become aggressive with a news camera. The news station gathered unflattering footage that may be trotted out whenever there is a skydiving incident, and the station has a prejudiced view of skydiving in general, simply because of an immature, emotional person that felt they needed to keep the media off the DZ. In the future, do you think the media will present pleasant, happy stories about skydiving? Keep these sorts of people away from the media.
A better example (and a paraphrased version of another incident report); "We're not yet exactly certain what happened. All we know at this time is that unfortunately, one of our friends has been injured, and we won't know the cause until we talk to everyone who actually observed what occurred. We will be providing a full report of the incident to the USPA, and that report will be available to you as soon as we have it." Simple, short, and sweet. It doesn't degrade the skydiver, doesn't give the news a "push" to assure it meets the "bleed." And it's all true. Be brief and stay on point. You'll also get more questions. Answer them confidently, briefly, articulately. Don't be afraid to say "It's too early to know that," or "That's a great question, and we hope to have an answer very soon." Additionally, don't be afraid to say that "Skydiving is a high-risk activity, and sometimes accidents occur." If you do want or feel a need to provide details, keep them as factual and simple as possible, and explain that we train for these scenarios, etc. Remember, your dialog with a visual media reporter is a 'performance' as much as it is a dialog. Stay confident, look in one direction, avoid moving your eyes around. Try to avoid "uuhhh,,,, mmmmm,... weeeeellll,...and other verbal distractions. Just because you're the DZO or DZM doesn't mean you're the right person to speak to the media. Find that nice-looking, articulate guy or gal on the dropzone and have them represent you and your DZ. The media serves one purpose and one purpose only. They need to bring a story back to the station. DZO's, S&TA's, or media personnel at the DZ can shape the voice of the story, and help direct the flow of the story by being courteous, professional, and helpful. Or, they can create a bad image for the DZ and the sport by reacting badly. Just as you have a job on the DZ, the press has a job too. One way or another, they're going home with a story. Wouldn't you rather have a say in how that story is presented?
BUILDING A CRISIS KIT/EPK
A Crisis Kit or Electronic Press kit is a great tool for DZ's whether it's used for crisis management or event promotion. This kit is a DVD that contains:
-Contact information and a headshot of the DZO, DZM, or other authorities for the DZ that are permitted to speak to the media.
-A "fact" sheet of statistics related to skydiving. This is available from the USPA website.
-Random video clips, well labeled, that show happy times in skydiving. Hoop jumps, tandems, RW, VRW, wingsuiting, etc are all good to include. These clips should not be more than :30 in length. These provide the media with cutaway shots, and will quell their desire to create more than the "real" story in the event of an incident. It also will help promote your DZ in a positive manner, regardless of what has brought the media to the dropzone. I recommend delivering in a .mxf format, high definition is preferable today. Any news station can open a Material eXchange Format file. DV is next best, preferably widescreen.
-Contact information for the USPA, assuming you're a USPA dropzone. The USPA has a PR team there to support and help you. Provide them as a resource.
Most savvy DZO's know that any press, good or bad, is good for business. However, if you can work with the media, provide them tools and assistance, make them feel welcome and appreciated regardless of their role on the DZ, they can become a weighty ally for your dropzone whether you're promoting a competition or just sponsoring an Easter Egg hunt.
The media can be free advertising and provide a draw to your location. Used wisely, you can dramatically increase traffic around your dropzone.
Blue skies and puffies,
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