How a City let Big Media Tell its Story: Lessons learned from #Memflood

May 11th, 2011   •   8 comments   



Memphis in all the big media headlines this week took our community by surprise reporting the historic flood of 2011 and showing the absolute worst pictures and images of a flood that has impacted just 1% of our City. Now I will say right here that this post is not meant to be insensitve to those who are affected.  I am writing this from a public relations perspective and from my own personal observations and experience dealing with media and crisis managment.  I think we (our whole community) underestimated the power of the national media and their ability to portray things differently than they happened.  Am I being too harsh on the media? I’m not sure but when Al Roker is standing in 3-4′ of water broadcasting from downtown Memphis (which is not flooded) is that really representing the real story? I don’t think so.  Yes, we have a swollen river and record flooded farm land, blown levees and some displaced and some flooded (which is terrible)–but “Memphis Flooded?”  No way. Not even close.  I thought it ironic that Monday the media showcased the worst pictures and Monday night, Memphis was live on TNT showing the dry and packed FedEx Forum where the Grizzlies played another playoff game (go Grizz). And by the way, just how far is the FedEx Forum from the river anyway?  

What I think we missed Monday was the opportunity to tell our national flood story differently–as an event to be witnessed from the safety of our Bluff.  Although flood warnings were issued and evacuations we made by some (less than 1,000), we missed an opportunity to tell the world that Memphis is safe–for the most part–when so much water threatens.  Instead, the media descended upon us and showed the world only the worst of pictures, many of which weren’t even in Memphis.  Water under the bridge? I think there are always opportunities for reflection and learning to constantly improve our processes. 

As a result of all this underwater publicity, people have cancelled trips here for our annual Memphis In May BBQ Championship contest, cancelled business trips (I know of several clients directly impacted by this) and no telling what else we don’t know.  Further, will people just remember the horrible pictures and think “I’m not going to that city…if it floods like that.”  Maybe. Maybe not.  I don’t mean to be negative or underestimate real dangers and threats our emergency managment officials were dealing with.  I just think the PR and communications during a crisis is as essential as operations.  That being said, here are some take aways and lessons learned:

  • We could have safely promoted the flood as a historic event to be witnessed safely from our Bluff (not a hill) as people are doing anyway.  Downtown has never been so busy with pedestrians coming to see the Mississippi River and Riverside Drive. While we don’t make light of those people who are affected–from an economic development perspective, having so many people come downtown is a plus for our city.
  • We could have given the national media better places from which to broadcast, asking that they respect our economic development and not allow them to tell their story in 4′ of water that obviously sent a different message.
  • Our #Memflood tag on Twitter went viral and was picked up by the national media. As I believe Twitter is the trip wire for spreading and breaking news, if I were in charge, the Twitter strategy would have been mandated and promoted by as many as possible.  As a community, we have the opportunity–through Twitter–to be as loud as we want and can talk directly to the national and local media who use Twitter.  Our emergency management personnel and city, county leadership need to understand and utilize this Twitter voice.
  • Communications to local media should also be coordinated (and maybe it was but Memphis was never “under seige” as one station reported) and need to understand the long term consequences of sensationalizing events–especially in a crisis. 

As this flood continues, it will be interesting to learn more examples like these when it comes to perceptions vs. reality.  Do you have a story to share about this?  How do you feel about the national coverage of the flood here in Memphis?  I’d love to know. Thanks for reading this! GO GRIZZ! GO MEMPHIS!


  1. Kevin Crosby says:

    They seem to be desperately looking for another major city Katrina disaster. I suppose it sells better than the real story and apparently better than a bunch of tornado damage and loss of life. It is going to be interesting to see the deluge of the sensationalistic media into New Orleans when they figure out that they are downstream from Memphis.

  2. Erik Proseus says:

    It's so easy to talk about the parts of the story that everyone wants to see and read, and neglect the fact that there might be some GOOD going on as well. I know I get easily sucked into it… when is the river going to crest? how high? who will be affected? what if the forecasts are wrong?

    People are more interested in seeing the sensationalistic than the "business as usual." However, for those in the area affected, I think it's important that we use our voices to counteract the drive-by media by sharing the other side of the story, even if it means catching the coattails of the "big story" to get that word out. While this event was/is certainly historic, the BIG STORY should be the fact that no life was lost, there were no significant injuries, and the damage was limited by a fantastic infrastructure and execution of a contingency plan. I must say that the rocket launch that we witnessed that was the Twitter hashtag #memflood was also pretty impressive!

  3. amy Howell says:

    Kevin: Thank you and I totally agree.
    Erik: You are in the "breaking news" business as a weather person so I am thankful you are getting the importance of truth in reporting. That's what Twitter and real time give us–the power of the community to really report what's going on. Can you imagine living elsewhere where freedom of speech is not appreciated or respected? Social gives us that ability–to report the real, true story. Unfortunately the national media failed in my opinion in trying to "sell" sensationalism vs. telling the truth. SHAME on Al Roker!

  4. Chris Lyons says:

    Amy, thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. Even reporting by the more traditional news media uses phrases such as "governmental disaster declarations," "Federal Emergency Management Agency," "…emergency aid cranks up," etc. How do you reconcile this factual reporting from a PR standpoint? For example, if I didn't watch Al Roker, but I read the headline "St. Louis to Receive Federal Disaster Aid Due to Flooding," I would be guilty of thinking that was enough information for me, and I will cancel my trip to St. Louis.

  5. liz says:

    I followed a tweet that led me to this post. I live in the Memphis area, and totally agree with what you've written. In fact, I was complaining to my husband a couple days ago after reading an article that stated Sun Studio and Graceland escaped damage. As if either of those places were ever in danger…

  6. Amy Howell says:

    Chris: thanks for your comments. As to your question, while you cannot control what the media does, you CAN supplement what is out there by being proactive and setting up digital tools for communicating what is really taking place. You enhance this by posting updates to a centralized website or source. Twitter is a great way to get news out fast and I think the entire issue centers around having a strategic, proactive communications plan vs. reacting to what happens. Thanks for your comment.

    Liz: thanks so much! Glad a tweet led you here!

  7. Paul Morris says:

    Good post, Amy. The River is why Memphis is where it is. Our founders placed us on high ground, the Fourth Chicasaw Bluff, way above any potential flooding. We're not called the Bluff City for nothing. Many had an opportunity to see the mighty Mississippi at its mightiest. A once in a lifetime opportunity.

  8. Amy Howell says:

    Paul: Thanks for stopping by to read and comment! I love your historical & geographical idea about this. I totally agree. Our BLUFF is why we are ok. Really great point I think most of us missed. Maybe you should do an Op-Ed on it:)))

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