Saturday, July 18, 2009

And That's the Way it Is: Walter Cronkite (1916-2009)

As I'm sure you know, Walter Cronkite died last night at the age of 92. No, that isn't a crisis. The death of a beloved celebrity is not a critical incident, as I've expounded upon before, and I certainly don't want to be accused of a double standard. Cronkite's death was not even unexpected -- people who are 92 die. This is a grief event, not a traumatic one.

But I'd like to take this opportunity to talk about Cronkite, not just because he was an American icon and a big part of my childhood (as was Michael Jackson, by the way), but because he was a pretty good crisis communicator.If you've never seen the footage of Cronkite announcing the death of President John F. Kennedy, I encourage you to do so now. I will date myself and say that I was not alive when Cronkite did this broadcast, so I can't claim it holds sentimental value for me, but I found it quite touching.

From a crisis communication standpoint, Cronkite does a lot of things right in this clip. He acknowledges the rumors that are out there, and he labels them rumors. He tells us that it is hard to get good information. When new information seems to come in that is simply the same rumors, he tells us that. And when confirmation finally comes that the President has died, he tells us in a very straightforward manner, and shows his emotions in a reasonable way. He then begins to move on to the next piece of information we are almost certainly wanting -- where is the Vice President? Except perhaps for the last few seconds, he engages in absolutely no speculation. He does not talk about "what if" scenarios. He sticks to the facts and he is clearly sharing them in real time.

If you've ever been watching TV as major news breaks, you know that Cronkite's style is pretty different from what we can expect on news today. Perhaps the most egregious example I can recall is when TWA Flight 800 exploded over Long Island and Dan Rather in less than an hour had declared that it was quite obviously a bomb. I have no interest in getting into the debate about what brought down Flight 800, but it was not "obviously" anything. News organizations like to "scoop" each other, and guessing right in a crisis has great rewards. Nobody thinks about what happens if you guess wrong.

Can you imagine if any of the myriad news stations were covering the JFK assassination now? Certainly we'd have various experts talking about gunshot wounds and the types of surgeries people have for them. We'd be shown old file footage of the President, the car he was riding in, that street corner in Dallas, and various kinds of rifles. The crawl underneath would tell us every minute detail of everything that anyone was saying about the situation, and the caption under the reporters would read "Breaking News: President Possibly Dead." Oh, and the anchor wouldn't be taking off and putting on his glasses, and you certainly wouldn't hear someone talking to him on camera.

Walter Cronkite reaped the benefit of being straightforward and honest, sticking to known facts and not holding back on them, and managing rumors when he was named the "Most Trusted Man in America" in repeated polls. He was a good example for all of us.

And that's the way it is . . .


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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