People in Colorado have a severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder brought about every time there is another unthinkable shooting spree.
First came the Columbine High School shootings in 1999, and then the Aurora theater shootings this past July. In between, similar senseless incidents evoked the feeling of hopelessness and despair.
It happened again last Friday with the shootings in Newtown, Conn.
Like many of my colleagues who have school-age children, I left my newspapers on the porch and didn’t turn on the television for the most of the weekend. I tried to stifle my feelings of anger and outrage and my despair that such shootings have become all too common.
On Sunday night, however, I broke my self-imposed news blackout and watched the live coverage of the touching church service in Newtown. The innocence of those children will not leave my thoughts.
In a radio interview after the Aurora theater shootings, Frank DeAngelis, who was principal of Columbine High School during the 1999 shootings and still holds that job today, said the healing process in such tragic situations is a marathon, not a sprint.
On Friday, he gave media interviews
on the Newtown shootings, saying:
“It just made me sick to my stomach. It just takes me back to what we felt on April 20, 1999. Even though it’s going to be 14 years, anyone that was alive during that time or in schools at that time or especially at Columbine, it just takes us back to that horrific day.”
Following the Aurora shootings, I wrote
about how being a dispassionate journalist is impossible, particularly in tragic events that hit you personally. On Sept. 11, 2001, when I found out my childhood friend had been killed on one of planes that hit the Twin Towers, I hid out in the newspaper's stairwell and cried, then went back to reporting the news.
These shooting sprees and tragedies transcend the functions of journalism and public relations. They tap into our fears and evoke our deepest compassion. In such instances, just doing your job isn't good enough; you have to be a real person first.
For journalists, that means getting the full, accurate story out to the world—without breaching common decency. In Newtown, the victims’ families have made it clear that they do not want to speak to the media under any circumstances. This, unfortunately, will not keep many in the media from trying.
For PR pros, it means accurately getting information to the media and those affected while respecting privacy and balancing people’s need to know with others’ need to grieve.
Though there is no magic formula for how you should respond to the media in these instances, but the following guidelines might help:
1. Your first responsibility is to the victims and their families. They should get the information first, whenever possible. Above all, you should respect their privacy and let them mourn in peace.
2. Acknowledge social media as an instantaneous source of not-so-reliable news.
3. Be professional with the media, but don’t be afraid to show emotion. Members of the media can stay detached from the tragic event and focus on covering the news. That doesn’t mean you should.
4. Remember that the news cycle will move on eventually, but the mourning by victims’ families and the community will last for years. Helping them, not the news media, will help heal wounds.
5. Work with law enforcement. All parties should provide consistent and complementary information at regular intervals.
6. Tighten up leaks. This will keep media from playing sources off one another.
7. Don’t be afraid to say that you don’t know or, “that’s confidential at this time." Sharing information that families should get first or that could compromise an investigation should be avoided.
8. Provide a briefing schedule, and stick to it. Consistency helps build confidence.
DeAngelis, who readily serves as an expert and voice of reason for these tragedies, said he got a phone call from a reporter in New York on Friday morning.
“They asked, ‘When will it get back to normal?’” DeAngelis said. "It is never going to get back to normal."
Gil Rudawsky is a former reporter and editor. He heads up the crisis communication/issues management practice at GroundFloor Media in Denver. Read his blog or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.