Christchurch massacre

March 29, 2019

Two weeks on from the awful deaths of 50 people in Christchurch and terrible injuries to many more, we offer some observations about the response of media and organisations.

 

The impulse to ‘do something’

Virtually all of us were emotionally affected by the Christchurch massacre. Amongst family, friends and colleagues we reacted, interpreted and lamented in some way.

That personal reaction led to some people feeling the organisation they worked for should “do something”.

Yet the response from most companies was, astutely, to do nothing. This was a personal tragedy with intense national and international ramifications. In these times it is easy to misjudge the response.

Some couldn’t help themselves, but the public mood was generous to them. For example, we noticed the softly worded print adverts from Pak’nSave, using their recognisable format to pledge support and thoughts for the victims and their families. The company demonstrated that the secret of successful alignment is to gently reflect the empathy of ordinary people.

Some got it very right; a note from the President of Engineering NZ to the organisation’s members movingly listed those among the dead who were engineers, along with a pen portrait of their professional lives.

Some over-egged it. Freeparking, an internet service provider, thought it was all about them, pledging to hunt out customers who didn’t fit their undefined code of “social and moral responsibilities”.

Some were just clumsy. Whitcoulls picked out a single book to ban from its shelves. Among everything on its shelves, it suppressed a self-help book by Jordan Peterson without offering any clear explanation as to why.

The most “on brand” response was from gangs. By offering to guard mosques they greatly assisted their reputation as people you don’t want to cross. They were celebrated for it. Strange times.

 

The first 24 hours of an issue defines it

On the night of the attack, Jacinda Ardern’s first words defined it to be motivated by racism: “We were chosen for the very fact that we are none of those things (racism and extremism)”.

She said New Zealand’s values were “diversity, kindness, compassion”. Over the following week amplification and repetition by like-minded thought-leaders made racism the dominant meaning attached to the attack.

Research shows that the first 24 hours following an event are critical to its future interpretation. So defining the crisis early is likely to be very helpful to your cause – even if you don’t have all the information.

After that period, new facts or interpretation need an increasing scale of confrontation to change the narrative. The only mitigating factor is time: over very long periods sustained critique and information (along with social shifts in values) can gradually lead people to reinterpret events.

 

Feelings matter most

Within a few hours of the attack, media coverage was emphasising reactions. In the absence of a complete picture of what had happened, journalists talked to people equally at a loss – people who had escaped the carnage, and relatives and friends of missing people who had possibly been at the mosques. The audience heard fear and bewilderment. Powerful stuff, but not informative.

This is what happens in the early part of crises; an information vacuum is filled with emotions. To the extent that there is information, it is conjecture. This is why we advise organisations in a crisis to provide any information they can during this period. Even contextual information helps understanding, such as details about the location, the work, the people involved.

 

It’s all about the media

Emotions also influence how journalists relate to, and report on, the victims of a crisis and possible perpetrators.

A few hours into the event on Friday evening, reporting for TV at the cordon, Patrick Gower was asked how these interviews felt for him. Gower obliged by describing his second-hand grief. He embellished these feeling on The Project the following Monday, talking about the interview that “broke” him.

Late the following week, the media self-analysed its performance. “Analysis” stories reported how media had “understandably” got a few facts wrong in the first 24 hours. At least, they claimed, they had shown compassion over the subsequent days and assisted condemnation of racism.

These are examples of the distance between those tangled in a crisis, and those observing. It’s a distance that needs bridging in the aftermath to prevent tension and misunderstanding.