7 guidelines for responding after a tragic event

The shooting spree at a Colorado cinema warrants compassionate and accurate media coverage, but how should your organization respond in the aftermath of a disaster?


So many Coloradans uttered the same phrase on Friday, “Oh, no! Not again.”

The shooting spree at a movie theater in Aurora couldn’t help but bring up memories of the Columbine High School shootings 13 years ago—and a mere 20 miles away.

As a newspaper editor at the time, I remember reporters coming back into the newsroom in tears, staring blankly at their computers. On Friday, Dave Perry, the editor of the Aurora Sentinel, wrote a blog post about how the newsroom was full of reporters, and there was silence.

“Quiet’s not good in a newsroom. Quiet is the sound of tragedy. It’s the sound of crisis. It’s when reporters and editors clench their jaws and squint,” Perry wrote.

Journalists are supposed to be neutral observers, but that’s impossible in such cases. On Sept. 11, 2001, when I found out my childhood friend had been killed, I hid out in the newspaper’s stairwell and cried, then went back to reporting the news.

Denver is a small community, and many of us know people directly affected by Friday’s shootings. Several members of our firm are helping clients respond to media calls and counseling other clients about whether and how to respond publicly.

This shooting spree transcends the functions of journalism and public relations. It taps into our fears and evokes our deepest compassions. 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 accurate story out to the world—without breaching common decency—and for PR professionals, it means accurately getting information to the media and those affected while respecting privacy and people’s need to mourn.

Though there is no magic formula for how your organization should respond to the media in these instances, these guidelines might help:

1. Your first responsibility is to the victims and their families. They should get the information first, whenever possible.
2. Acknowledge social media as an instantaneous source for 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 focused on covering the news. That doesn’t mean you should.
4. Work with law enforcement. Everyone should provide consistent and complementary information at regular intervals.
5. Tighten up leaks. This will keep media from playing sources off one another.
6. 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.
7. Provide a briefing schedule and stick to it. Consistency helps build confidence.

The best we can do in trying times is to provide accurate facts in a timely fashion. Whether we are citizens trying to digest information or messengers from the media or the PR world, a simple revelation of facts might not bring closure.

In a radio interview Friday morning, Frank DeAngelis, who was principal of Columbine High School during the 1999 shootings and remains in that job today, said in an interview that the healing process in such tragic situations is a marathon, not a sprint.

We are still in the first mile.

Gil Rudawsky heads the crisis communication/issues management practice at GroundFloor Media in Denver. He is a former reporter and editor with 20 years of communications experience. Read his blog or contact him at grudawsky@groundfloormedia.com.

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