The Balloon Boy hubbub proves a rule that companies in crisis should keep in mind: News is entertainment at the speed of the Internet.
Here’s how it happens:
The incident goes live. In this case, Balloon Boy’s parents called the TV stations.
The incident becomes breaking news. A herd mentality takes over competing media outlets. Nobody wants to miss the shot that everybody else has. Time elapsed: About half an hour.
Breaking news becomes a national story. Local coverage feeds into national outlets, and everything feeds into the Internet. Live event coverage goes viral. News links and commentary fly around email, Facebook and Twitter. People at work see headlines on the little TVs in the elevators. Time elapsed: About an hour.
The story becomes a controversy. News reports contradict earlier reports, creating scandal. Questions, rumors and speculation become a constant din interspersed with breaking news updates of even the most minuscule facts. Talking heads on cable and radio blame liberals or conservatives for allowing things like this to happen. Internet coverage and chatter multiplies a thousand-fold. Time elapsed: Three to four hours.
The controversy becomes pop culture. The people who started it get interviewed on Larry King. Leno and Letterman make jokes that night. Saturday Night Live refers to it in a promo for this week’s show. Three times the number of media outlets show up the next day, and so do dozens of other people from all over. Some bring alcohol, others bring hand-made posters. Internet coverage and chatter multiplies several thousand-fold. Supermarket tabloids do cover stories. Time elapsed: One to two days.
Pop culture becomes the story. Media coverage and Internet chatter is the same as follows a popular reality TV show. People take sides with and against victims, villains and heroes. Everyone becomes a celebrity. Journalists – many of them ticked off for being played -- investigate school transcripts, arrest records and anonymous tips. Web sites pop up. Talk shows devote whole hours. Authorities launch formal investigations. Politicians express concern. Somebody announces a book.
Media critics blame the news media. News media blame consumers. Consumers find Balloon Boy Halloween costumes on the Internet.
Total time elapsed: About 72 hours, give or take.
(Photo: The New York Post reported that an online gaming company in San Francisco put “Balloon Boy Game” on the Internet in only about six hours after the news story went national.)
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- The Harvard Crimson: Sailing away with Balloon Boy
- American Chronicle | The "Balloon Boy" and the White House: Good lessons for not mixing "news" and entertainment
- Philadelphia Inquirer | Mr. and Mrs. Balloon Boy did it because we will watch
- Washington Post | Balloon Boy, media stunts, dream up your own