"War of the Worlds" A Case Study in Crisis Communications

Halloween Night at 10 p.m., Windsor/Detroit’s CKWW-AM 580 airs what is arguably the greatest radio hoax of all time: Orson Welles’ classic 1938 broadcast of “The War of the Worlds”. The original radio show ran over WABC-AM in New York and across the country via the Columbia Broadcasting System network.

The ensuing public panic it set off is testament to the power of the media and an early study in crisis communications. The program, formatted as a series of news reports, dealt with an area alien invasion—hardly an event that could be planned for in advance. Still, despite roads jammed with fleeing citizens and switchboards clogged with calls, police agencies and the media worked quickly to secure and release the facts and calm the hysteria. The Associated Press took the lead, issuing a wire report while the broadcast still aired that events were fictional.

Even today, it is impossible to plan for all crisis contingencies; however, moving swiftly to deal with a particular issue, including diligent fact checking followed by communicating to reassure, still provide the foundation for effective adversity management. WWJ’s “Daily Dash” by James Melton discusses these principles and more with a few insights from me.