Sunday, July 21, 2013

The crash of Asiana flight 214 and the Don Lemon Test

As many of you know, in addition to writing about SEO and social media, I've had a long career in aerospace, including time as a flight test engineer in the US Air Force, and a safety engineer at Boeing. Early in my professional career, I had the experience of having some of my research work in a study I coauthored featured in the New York Times newspaper on November 1, 1991.

The next day, I had the experience of seeing the findings of the research twisted for a cheap laugh on Saturday Night Live. That led to my first lesson in the power of the media when it comes to aviation safety. It also led me to the concept of the New York Times Test.

The New York Times Test
As I described in a 2009 post on this site, The New York Times is a major new media publication that has influence on other news outlets and on society at large. Based on this first experience with being featured in the newspaper, I came up with the "New York Times Test."

The test is a simple one, you can pass the test if you can answer the following question with a resounding yes. If your words or your deeds end up being featured in the New York Times, could you deal with it? Specifically, could you deal with the kind of scrutiny that happens when your family, friends, colleagues, coworkers, and millions of total strangers suddenly take a keen interest in your work?

Would you be prepared to handle criticism, whether it was deserved or not, whether it was honest and fair or mean-spirited and destructive? Did I mention emotional responses like ridicule and jealousy? Also, don't forget about maybe being lampooned on national television.

The New York Times Test doesn't have to involve the New York Times. Any major and influential media outlet will do if the result is a significant amount of follow-on attention. I can say for certain that I've taken the test twice, the first in 1991, and the second after the ditching of the US Airways A320 in 2009. On that occasion, USA Today provided me with a New York Times Test. A page on the site discussed the history of intentional ditchings involving large jet airliners, and information from that site was prominently featured in a USA Today article, which it turn generated significant attention and online traffic for

The crash of Asiana flight 214
Earlier this month, a different airline accident led to a completely different kind of media experience, one that deserved to have its own name. On Saturday 6 July 2013, Asiana flight 214, a Boeing 777, crashed while attempting to land in San Francisco. This crash, which killed three passengers, was noteworthy and newsworthy for several reasons. Among those reasons were the fact that it was the first fatal crash of a Boeing 777, it was the first fatal US crash of a large jetliner in almost 12 years, and the crash occurred in a major US media market in broad daylight.

Normally this kind of plane crash results in nonstop coverage by all the major cable news outlets, and when this happens I typically receive multiple media requests for comments or interviews within minutes of a crash. I didn't find out about the crash until about 90 minutes after it happened, and checking my phone, I was quite surprised to see that no one in the media had made any calls or sent any emails or text messages since the crash. I suspected that it was due to the crash happening in the middle of a long weekend.

On a four-day weekend the media is on holiday
Because the July 4th holiday fell on a Thursday, the following weekend became a four-day weekend for many in the US, including apparently many in the media. After I found out about the crash, I spent the next half hour reaching out to many of the media contacts in my phone, and it took a while before I got any responses. As it would turn out, the four-day weekend and lack of available on-air experts gave me an opportunity to get on the air, something I had done numerous times in the past, and if the past were any guide, I'd might even have a few minutes of air time on a major cable or broadcast network. I was right about the opportunity, but was completely wrong about the magnitude of that opportunity.

Face to face with the anchor
My typical on-air appearance on a national network show is from a remote studio far from the network's headquarters. In my case, I had a call from CNN, and since I was in New York and CNN is headquartered in Atlanta, I expected this to be the case. I figured I'd be in and out in 30 minutes or less and get maybe two minutes of air time. When I showed up, I was first told the anchor was Don Lemon, and I wanted to know where I'd be doing the remote shot. Then I was told that Don wasn't in Atlanta, he was in New York, and I'd be at the desk with him.

Hearing this, I thought I'd get maybe five minutes of air time before I'd be asked to leave and have some other on-air expert would take over. Five minutes turned to fifteen, and fifteen turned to thirty, and it was clear to me that there were no other experts coming to the studio. Six hours later, I finally left the studio, having had a completely new experience, and a new test named for Don Lemon

The Don Lemon Test
The Don Lemon Test has three elements. The first part is that it is a New York Times Test, a situation where your words or deeds are on on display through a very high profile media outlet. When it comes to major plane crashes, few are higher than live hours-long coverage of a major disaster by CNN. The second part is being live for an extended period of time, which means one has to not only prepare a few relevant comments ahead of time for a few minutes on the air, but to come up with such comments on very short notice, and to do so many times not over a period of minutes but over a period of several hours.

Because of the amount of time I was in the studio, most of which was spent waiting patiently for the action to move in my direction, I was doing something I don't normally do, which is to check email and the web on the set. Normally I cut off my phone to keep from having what I thought was a silenced phone surprise me by ringing at just the wrong time. However, I didn't have that option. I needed to keep up with constantly evolving information about the crash to help me anticipate what issues I may have had to respond to on the air. I could only do so because the last element of this test was in place.

The third element of a Don Lemon Test is that you have to be in the presence of a truly professional communicator like Don Lemon, someone who can deftly present breaking and tragic news to a world audience, while at the same doing so in the presence of someone whom he had never met and who was also not a professional journalist.

My job for those several hours was to remain in a of state of high focus so I could perform the role of an on-air expert and actually say the appropriate things when called upon. That job wA at times stressful, but it was inconsequential compared to what Don Lemon and his crew were dealing with during my six hour stay, and I commend them for a job well done.

It's not about Don Lemon
The Don Lemon Test isn't about Don Lemon, but about the situation. You can pass the test if you can answer the following question: Are you both willing and able, with the help of a team of media professionals, to have your words and deeds scrutinized by a national or even global audience, and do so in a way that will be beneficial to the audience? If the answers is yes, then you pass the test. Having done so once, I would recommend that if you have the opportunity, do plenty of preparation before taking the test, and be ready to deal with the unexpected once the test begins.

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