Real Media Riffs - Thursday, Aug 10, 2006

TERROR IS A WASTEFUL THING TO MIND -- Great, now we're actually afraid of water. In the span of five years, we've managed to go from a society free to carry just about anything shy of a loaded pistol aboard a major airline to being banned from bottles of Evian. What's next, air? Don't get us wrong. We understand the necessity. We are dealing with insidious threats conceived by ingenious but despicable minds. But we also know that even as we defeat their physical acts, we concede--and actually promote--their emotional ones. The primary weapon of terrorism is not explosive, radiological or even biological. It is psychological. It is terror. And media is its greatest ally.

No, we're not saying that the media industry is a willful coconspirator--not generally, anyway--but the media do the job that liquid combustibles simply cannot: slip through our defenses and enter our minds. Those threats have and always will be there. We only become aware of them because the media inform us about them, which is a good thing. We only panic because the media sensationalize the threats, which is clearly a bad thing. In the time since the Sept. 11 attacks, our minds have raced with the possibilities. And just when we thought we had imagined a final, horrific scenario, a new one comes to mind.



Actually, it was only a few weeks ago, while we were boarding a plane for an overseas flight, when this revelation popped up. We passed our carry-on through the x-ray machine when a South American aviation security worker asked what all the bottles were inside. "Agua," we replied, opening the bag to reveal a half dozen bottles of earth's most plentiful liquid. "Yo tengo mucha sed." But it occurred to us what those bottles must have looked like to a security screener viewing them on an x-ray, and why we never thought about that before. Well, the Al Queda, or some other fanatical group apparently have. And now we will be thinking about it any time we board a plane, or enter some other high-security area.

Until Sept. 11, 2001, who would have imagined terrorists could have turned our own commercial airline industry against us? But in the period since, how many realize how they've turned our own media industry against us? Or better yet, what we should be doing about that. It's occurred to us numerous times, especially after some big terrorist attacks. The first time was in the days following the Oklahoma City terrorist bombing. We were working for Advertising Age back then, and we remember how the trade magazine turned its entire issue the following Monday over to the subject of terrorism. We also remember that we pitched and wrote what was probably the only story in that issue that had anything to do with our business: a round-up of interviews with leading public affairs strategists on how media could actually be used to thwart--not enhance--terrorism. It's not an easy task, they said, but it is one that can be effective if you have a plan in mind.

The second major epiphany came to us in the days following 9/ll. We were working for Steven Brill then, operating out of Brill Media's offices in Rockefeller Center, and sharing the mail distribution system with NBC, one of the locations that was subsequently hit by anthrax mailing attacks. Clearly, terror was on our mind. So was the role of media. Those anthrax attacks were aimed directly at the media: NBC, News Corp., and ABC. No conclusive explanations were ever given for the source of those attacks, but timed as they were after 9/11, the culprits surely understood something about reach and frequency, not to mention recency.

Maybe we're stretching this one too far. It's hard to imagine a 20-something fundamentalist sitting at a PC, poring over an IMS flowchart and calculating the DMA targets that would optimize the most number of GRPs. But, hey, it's not inconceivable either. If our social engineers can utilize sophisticated tools to evaluate and plan their media decisions, why wouldn't the terrorists?

From what we understand, counterintelligence organizations are fairly astute analysts of the media. They've even developed some of the most sophisticated media intelligence systems, the kind that would make TNS' or Monitor-Plus' tracking pale in comparison. We doubt the most sophisticated of those ever get seen publicly, but we're aware of some systems that have made it into commercial enterprises. A while back, our friend Mark Weiner, who runs public relations research firm Delahaye, told us about a system he licensed that was created by Russia's KGB. The system utilizes artificial intelligence software to filter through countless media stories to find the one that are truly relevant. The PR and buzz marketing analysts at Cymfony do similar work and even include the U.S. military among their clients, though they wont' talk about the work they do for them.

So we wouldn't be surprised to learn that terrorist groups or counter-terrorist forces were using other Madison Avenue-like media planning tools and techniques in their war chests. What we do know is that even failed terrorist attacks succeed in the media marketplace. Our question is whether the media marketplace could play a better role in the war on terrorism. We're not sure how to do that, but possibly with simpler, more straightforward, just-the-facts coverage: the kind of news reporting that keeps us informed and makes us vigilant without fueling the flames of terror, whether they are ignited by airborne liquids or athletic shoes. The kind of media coverage that lets us adapt and move on. Or, as one savvy media user might say, the kind of media that allows us to, Just Do It.

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