The instant nature of news reporting nowadays brings new challenges – which makes it all the more important to find a balanced perspective
Acting as a spokesperson for members of the African travel industry in 22 countries is not easy. Certainly, handling media enquiries in times of crisis – from transport accidents to terrorism, disease to political upheavals – has become far more challenging.
In the past, the media might pick up a story several days after an incident. They would consult their own files and dispatch local reporters to the scene. By that stage our network of contacts across Africa would have telephoned to tell me about it. When I ran a circuit of camps and lodges in Kenya over thirty years ago, local communication was usually by shortwave radio, then by undersea cable to Europe, and beyond by telex.
Today things are very different. In this world of rolling news, members of the public – including in even the remotest areas of Africa – act as reporters, using their mobile devices to send images directly from the scene as an incident unfolds. They share their comments via social media and in an instant it reaches the far corners of the world.
Today I can be sitting in the office or walking the dog and a call will come from a newsroom – BBC, ITN, CNN, Al Jazeera. In the past, forewarned and forearmed, I was able to respond quickly. Nowadays, this might be the first I hear about the incident. So I usually request a short time – say 30 minutes – to find out more. Often they give me less than an hour to get into the studio.
This will mean detailing one of our members in the area of concern to find out more. Then there is the tourism authority of that country to be considered. They are usually equally in the dark and more often than not unable to comment without authorisation from their political masters. Remember too that a tourist board will always seek to add a positive spin on any response as they are rightly concerned that any hint of negativity will effect tourist arrivals to their country.
So I have just thirty minutes to respond or the press will seek another source. The response needs to be concise, clear and memorable, taking care that there are no ‘sound bite’ traps, where a quote is extracted which gives a different perspective to that intended.
Finally, and importantly: is my response going to leave an impression that the country in question should be avoided, or can a positive be found? Any situation may be seen in different ways depending on one’s point of view. All too often the newscasters focus purely on the negative. I am conscious that my response will influence how people view Africa, so it needs to be accurate and balanced. My job is to find that balance. For when that call comes in, I know that although there may be trouble ahead I shall have to “face the music and dance”.
Nigel Vere Nicoll is Chief Executive of Atta, The African Travel & Tourism Association, which serves travel companies in the African travel sector in 37 countries around the world. For more information visit www.atta.travel. See Nigel talking on TV earlier this year: http://bit.ly/1DaTUlj