Please keep the Decareaux family of Millstadt, Ill., in your thoughts and prayers. David Decareaux, 36, and his sons, Dominic, 10, and Grant, 8, died on Sunday, Jan. 13, 2013, of hypothermia. (Read St. Louis Post-Dispatch story on the memorial service.) This was a terrible tragedy. The following post is presented in the spirit that, in some way, some good might come from this terrible event.
Helpfulness is fundamental for successful relationships between public relations professionals and reporters. Trustworthiness is another key element in those relationships.
A series of events last week shed light on the importance of helpfulness and trust. A veteran television reporter needed assistance with a story and was on a tight deadline. The story was a sidebar on a tragedy. The reporter was struggling to find a source and visuals for the story.
The PR professional needed to trust that the reporter would not place his organization in a negative or controversial light in the story on the tragedy. This was a possibility because the organization’s key messages might appear to be insensitive if related to the tragic series of events.
A father and two of his sons died of exposure after they became lost on a rural Missouri trail on Sunday, Jan. 13, 2013. When they started a hike on the previous day, the temperature was above 50 degrees. But the weather turned cold and heavy rains moved into the area a few hours later. (Read story in St. Louis Post-Dispatch.)
Alex Fees, a veteran reporter from KSDK, Newschannel 5, called at approximately 10 a.m. on Monday, Jan. 14, 2013, and initiated a conversation about a sidebar story on the tragedy. Fees knew the Greater St. Louis Area Council, Boy Scouts of America, taught thousands of young people to be safe and responsible in the outdoors. The task for the PR professional was to find a Wilderness Survival Merit Badge counselor who could do an interview at Beaumont Scout Reservation in High Ridge, Mo., at approximately 1 p.m. Calls went out to six counselors and veteran Scout leaders who taught young people how to safely camp and hike in the outdoors. No one was available.
Fees was told the Greater St. Louis Area Council could not provide an expert by the deadline. However, the PR professional was an Eagle Scout and knew enough about wilderness survival to provide some helpful information and be a credible interview. Fees was appreciative that the Boy Scouts of America could assist him because no other organization was able to help him.
This is where trust comes into the picture. The PR professional had to trust that the reporter wouldn’t take the organization’s key messages and present them in a judgmental light. There was the potential that the reporter could have focused the story or summarized it with the statement, “If the father and two sons had followed the steps taught by the Boy Scouts, they might still be alive.”
(Later in the week, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran a story refuting their reporting that the father and two sons refused a ride earlier in the day as it was starting to rain.)
Many PR professionals cooperate with reporters on these types of stories only to have their organization’s messages appear to be insensitive or judgmental when put in the context of the tragic story. A few weeks prior, Fees worked with the PR professional on a story about the Boy Scouts of America’s Ineligible Volunteers files. The organization was cooperative, informative and transparent during that interview. The principles of trust and helpfulness that were displayed during that story helped maintain or enhance the relationships with the reporter and their media outlet.
Organizations can be rewarded by taking a calculated risk in media relations. In this case, the Greater St. Louis Area Council strengthened or enhanced its brand, its standing in the community and reputation in the nonprofit community.
But more importantly, by helping and trusting a reporter, a message was communicated that might one day save someone’s life. If just one person who viewed the story will be able to save their own life or the life of another by following one of the survival tips, the risk was worth it.