5 lessons from the Orlando nightclub mass shooting

Orlando Health had trained for just such a tragedy, but you never know what it will be like until you are swept into the maelstrom. Here’s how to prepare.

Editor’s note: This story is taken from Ragan Communications’ distance-learning portal Ragan Training. The site contains hundreds of hours of case studies, video presentations and interactive courses.

Shortly after 3 a.m. June 12, 2016, a phone call woke Kena Lewis, director of public affairs and media relations for Orlando Health.

A voice asked, “Hey, Kena, have you heard about the shooting?”

She said she had, thinking he was asking about another recent shooting in town. The caller, a fellow hospital employee, told her no: “This one is someplace close to us, someplace called Pulse.”

There had been a mass shooting in a gay nightclub by a gunman inspired the Islamic State terror group. By the time it was over, the gunman had murdered 49 people and wounded 58 others before police shot him dead.

Meanwhile, Orlando Health—an 18,000-employee medical group just three blocks from the crime scene—found itself swept into the maelstrom of a contemporary nightmare.

In a Ragan Training video, “How Orlando Health’s Media Relations Team Handled the Pulse Nightclub Tragedy,” Lewis offers essential crisis lessons for communicators in an age when terrorists can strike anywhere.

Forty-four of the victims were treated there, nine of them dying before they got to the operating table. (All those who made it to the operating room survived.) Swarms of journalists camped out for days at the hospital. Hundreds of family members and friends showed up.

Here are a few takeaways for that emergency you hope never will happen to your organization:

1. Draft (or update) your crisis plan—now.

“Be prepared,” Lewis says. “If you are not prepared, get prepared.”

Orlando Health had done crisis drills, including one focused on a mass-casualty incident just three months before the shooting. The hospital group had a written plan to back it up, establishing a Hospital Incident Command center. This proved essential.

The plan should include prewritten statements of compassion and safety. Also, list the cell phone numbers of your crisis communications team and every other priority contact. The security team, for example, were essential in corralling journalists who had sneaked into unauthorized areas of campus.

Another important phone number belonged to the government relations director. “All of a sudden, every elected official and every candidate started showing up at the front door or at the press conference,” Lewis said.

[RELATED: Keep your cool in a crisis with these 13 tips.]

Lewis also had to call in the guy who handles the website and the staffer who runs the call center, as 5,000 calls poured in within an hour.

2. Prioritize employee communications.

When communicating, Orlando health prioritized its own employees first. Second were members of the traditional media, followed by social media. This means every communication involved PR, internal comms and the social media team.

“Team members are first,” Lewis emphasized. “We never want anybody to find out anything from any source other than the organization.”

Orlando Health used news outlets to get out the word about a street closing that affected hospital access. That helped employees avoid an area crammed with ambulances and police vehicles.

3. Train your representatives and prepare your messages.

All doctors who might address the press receive training as a part of their orientation, Lewis says.

In addition to offering expressions of sympathy for the victims and reports on the condition of patients, Orlando health pushed three messages: They were prepared, they were the experts (as the hospital was the only level-one trauma center in the region), and they were a team.

Doctors called upon to speak to the press emphasized, in Lewis’ words, “We are the ones in OR, and we are the ones in the trauma center, but there is a whole team of people who make this happen, who care for these people. We don’t want it to be about us.”

4. Get help.

Orlando Health uses a Tampa PR firm. One lesson is that Lewis wishes she had called on them earlier. Planning for the future, they now drill with the crisis team and the rest of the hospital staff, so they can respond quickly.

The hospital uses an outside video team, and Lewis called on them to help, asking for a crew and a photographer for 24 hours a day after the crisis.

5. Expect social media surprises.

Amid the news media onslaught, an Orlando Health resident, Dr. Joshua Corsa, posted a photo of his shoes on Facebook, noting that they were stained with the blood of 56 people. He vowed to keep wearing those shoes until the last patient was discharged.

He wrote of his patients: “I don’t know which were straight, which were gay, which were black, or which were Hispanic. What I do know is that they came to us in wave upon wave of suffering, screaming, and death. And somehow, in that chaos, doctors, nurses, technicians, police, paramedics, and others, performed super human feats of compassion and care.”

Lewis was unaware of that post when a reporter called to ask, “Can I talk to the guy with the bloody shoes?”

She called her social media team and told them to find the doctor. “I want to know what the hell’s going on,” Lewis said.

Corsa hadn’t been trained for talking to the press, but Lewis walked him through a quick prep before unleashing the newshounds on him.

“Just know that [employees] can post anything,” Lewis says, “and you have to be ready for it.”

There’s much more to this session. Subscribe to Ragan Training.


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