ACCURACY. In the turmoil of disaster, there may
be many temptations for you to rely on memory or to
make educated estimates in answering seemingly
inconsequential questions. Reporters may be pressing
from all sides for bits of information which must be
laboriously checked for accuracy.
An offhand answer to a question, such as, How
many crew members does an airplane like the one that
crashed usually carry? may haunt you for weeks or
months. A low estimate might imply the aircraft was
permitted to fly with an incomplete crew. An
overestimate might excite speculation about a special
mission or an overloaded airplane.
No detail is too small to confirm. Checking and
rechecking facts in a disaster situation should be
standard operating procedure. It could very well spell
the difference between success or failure of your whole
In this regard you must resist efforts by the media
to force the answer to a question before it has been
authenticated. This is particularly difficult when
deadlines approach or there is pressure from a reporter
who is personally known and trusted. Being stampeded
into an answer at a time like this can only result in
additional problems. Say you will check and get back to
them by a specific time. Whether you have the answer
or not, at least give them a status report.
One important aspect of accuracy is the release of
the names of disaster victims. A misspelled name, wrong
initials, incorrect grade or rate can mean unwarranted
anxiety or suffering to the next of kin. An example of
this was the crash of a military transport plane several
years ago. The public affairs office, in its haste to oblige
reporters, released the flight manifest from another
aircraft of the same type which was flying a similar
mission on the same day. The identification numbers of
the aircraft were similar and were not double-checked
before they were released. In an attempt to provide quick
assistance, a tragic mistake was made.
INITIATIVE. A good JO anticipates the needs of
the news media. Get them the facts, figures and other
information they will need before they get a chance to
ask for it. When you take this initiative, the following
advantages will result:
l It shows you are interested in their problems and
want to cooperate.
l It indicates the public affairs staff is ready for
such situations when they arise. Reporters
appreciate enterprise and resourcefulness
because these qualities are required of them in
their own professions.
It establishes an air of honesty and frankness.
They know you are not trying to hide anything.
It saves timeboth yours and theirs. If you
provide information as soon as it becomes
available, reporters do not have to go out and dig
it up themselves. Releasing news promptly also
saves you from repeated queries on the same
It enables the Navy to state its position along with
the facts it releases. You have to be careful,
however, to avoid the appearance of trying to
whitewash the facts.
It provides alibi copy for the public affairs files.
This is an area where you, as a senior JO, are certain
to be of value to your command. Most of the decisions
concerning media relations and public affairs policy will
be made by the officer in command or PAOalthough
you may get deeply involved in this if there is no
full-time PAO in the command.
But whatever the situation, digging up facts and
figures is the JOs job, a job you can embark upon as
soon as you get the word that an accident has occurred.
Almost any fact your research brings out will help the
PAO and the news media.
If you follow the preceding releasing procedure, the
job of reading bulletins over the telephone to the media
will probably rest on you also. You will do this while the
PAO (or director of the CIB) talks to other officers and
gets new information and guidance. You can take down
any questions you are asked, and either get the answers
yourself or refer them to your boss. However, you
should never assume the role as spokesman unless
specifically designated by the officer-in-charge.
HONESTY. Honesty in dealing with the media is
always of prime importance. The circumstances
surrounding a disaster are often negative in connotation
and sometimes painful to admit. The only solution,
however, is complete honesty and candor.
Overt dishonesty is generally not the problem.
Many of the facts are readily available or discernible to
the press. The problem of indirect dishonesty is most
often encountered. Neglecting to tell the whole story or
glossing over certain unsavory facts is dishonest. Failing
to tell the news media that the CO of a ship was
previously involved in a similar disaster is a form of