Managing a marathon of information - A Media Relations perspective

ISSN 2369-873X

21 May 2013
Posted by: John Cottreau

Responding to an accident is both exhilarating and troubling, especially as a media relations professional. On the one hand, like any professional, I am eager for opportunities to practice my craft. On the other hand, as part of an accident investigation team, there could be an element of tragedy and loss. For me, reconciling these feelings is always difficult.

Media relations and accident investigation

One of my most interesting and memorable professional experiences was when the TSB responded to an aircraft that overran the runway at the Lester B. Pearson International Airport on 2 August 2005. I heard about the accident while on my way home at the end of the day. Quickly realizing it would receive a lot of media attention, I packed my bag once I got home and returned to work.

Reports from the media were chilling at first. Airport and highway traffic cameras showed a large aircraft burning uncontrollably. But updates soon reassured that everyone was safe. Shortly after the accident, investigators from our Toronto office arrived on the scene. They ensured that a security perimeter was established around the accident site, and waited for the rest of the team’s arrival from Ottawa.

Reaching out to other media relations professionals

As a communicator, one of the first things I do when arriving on the scene of an accident is reach out to other communicators on-site. We discuss the situation, exchange contact information and determine roles and responsibilities. This accident was no different. Upon reaching the airport, I met with a great team of people from Toronto Pearson’s Communications Branch who had arranged a major news conference for their CEO, the Minister of Transport and the heads of Air France and Airbus. The accident had attracted a huge media contingent, including major Canadian and U.S. television networks, international wire services and every news outlet within a 50 mile radius of Toronto.

Following the joint news conference, I immediately began preparing one for the TSB to brief the media on our accident investigation process and team. The Communications Branch at Toronto Pearson provided us with immeasurable support—a briefing room, visual aids of the airport’s runways, and logistical support controlling the army of reporters. After a quick briefing with the TSB’s Investigator-in-Charge, we delivered our information mid-afternoon on the day after the accident. We put on another five more of these news conferences in the following days to an audience that steadily dwindled to all but the most local news outlets.

Providing a marathon of information—media relations

But on that first day in front of an international press corps of 70 to 80 outlets—live and in colour—we provided a marathon information session, managing to answer the questions of all who attended.

Fortunately, on that stormy day in Toronto, every person aboard the aircraft—all 309 passengers and crew—made it out safely. A blessing and a testament to the abilities of the crew, as the aircraft burned and was destroyed.

Challenges in media relations

Each day brought its own special challenges. For the first three days, my cell phone never stopped ringing. This made relations with reporters a little testy at times, as I would often finish a conversation with one reporter to find three messages on my phone. It was especially problematic when my phone was turned off for critical meetings with team members or during press briefings. I would turn my phone back on to find 30+ messages, only to get through those to find yet another 30 more had taken their place. But busy work makes the days fly by, and those seven days were a blur of activity.

I worked with some truly great reporters, photographers, videographers, and documentarians in the Toronto media community. I learned something new every day, and I’ve been able to apply those lessons to subsequent accidents.

The days were long during the field phase of the accident investigation—often 15 hours or more. But at the end of every day, as tired as you are, you can take pride in the knowledge that the TSB’s mission is a fantastic one to stand behind. For communicators, that’s a great bottom line.

Image of John Cottreau

John has been a communicator with the Government of Canada since 1995. Since joining the TSB in 2002, he has worked on a number of high-profile investigations. John is a husband, father and grandfather, and enjoys travelling and movies.

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