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Crisis Communication Lessons from the Tragedy at Sandy Hook

By Catherine Gryp (@cgryp)

Like the rest of the country, I watched the news of the Sandy Hook school shooting with shock, sadness and an incredible feeling of loss. I’ve shed many tears for the innocent lives lost. As I have been monitoring the media coverage of this tragedy, the communicator side of my brain began to consider the crisis communications response related to these terrible events. While most organizations will be lucky enough to never experience a crisis of this magnitude, this situation does remind us of some key crisis communications principles. With the deepest respect for the tragedy in Connecticut, I do think it is important to review what we can learn from this event as far as communicating during a crisis.

Control the flow of information

During a crisis, you must take control of the flow of information. We’ve seen this principle in action at Sandy Hook, as Lieutenant George Sinko has been very clear about when he will be providing updates, including the date and time of the next press conference. This is a particularly important tactic for making sure you feed the media with the information they need, while not becoming all consumed with your media response. Controlling the updates allows you time to focus on the important steps to respond to the crisis at hand. And, it makes the media feel they have been heard and that you are being responsive to their needs.

Here’s an article on the Q&A session of a Sandy Hook press conference, which offers some thoughts we can consider.

Never speculate or guess

Especially in the beginning stages of a crisis, there are a lot of unknowns. So when the media, your employees, your customers, your shareholders, etc. start calling, you may be tempted to speculate as to the answers to their questions. It’s this simple: if you do not know the answer, NEVER speculate. Feeding misinformation into a crisis environment will reduce your credibility, the most important asset in a crisis. Instead of speculating, state that you don’t have the information at hand, but that you will work to find the answer. It’s also helpful to give a timeline for when you may be able to get this answer, if possible.

Know that the void will be filled – but by whom?

In a crisis, the media wants information, and they want it now. The 24-hour news cycle greatly contributes to this, as well as the endless drive to scoop a story. The media wants information – where will they get it? Know that if you are not communicating during a crisis, someone else is going to fill the information void. Do your best to fill the void with accurate and clear information. Keep the media engaged appropriately with your organization’s messages related to the story.

As we’ve seen in the Sandy Hook tragedy, the media will follow any and all leads to fill the information void. They will interview bystanders, family members, experts, etc. Depending on the crisis at hand, do your best to provide good sources and interviews for the media so that they are talking to reputable sources and getting accurate information.

Monitor and correct misinformation

As mentioned before, the media will try to fill the void with whatever information they can find. Sometimes this information is inaccurate. We saw this quite clearly in the first day of news coverage related to the Sandy Hook tragedy – the media got so much information wrong in the first 24 hours, resulting in a lot of confusion and rumors related to the events. Even as late as yesterday, a Daily Beast story included a link to a story from Dec. 14, including inaccurate information that the shooter’s mother was a teacher at the school. Social media, in particular, creates an environment ripe for misinformation. Be sure that someone on your team is monitoring all media coverage and social media conversations during and after the crisis. Correct misinformation and become the respected source for information related to the crisis.

Uncover the heroes

During a crisis like Sandy Hook, heroes rise to the top and become a key part of the media coverage. It is a natural component of our society to value and recognize heroic acts.

In other crises, these heroes may not rise to the top as naturally. Depending on your crisis, there may be some heroes you can highlight. Provide these heroes to the media (as appropriate) as part of the story. This helps us focus on the positive, the good and provide hope and reassurance amidst an otherwise difficult time.

Show heartfelt compassion for those involved

We are communicators, but we are above all humans. In every crisis, someone is harmed, and we have to make our compassion for these individuals very clear. This is particularly important in a crisis such as Sandy Hook, where the lives lost and affected are of utmost importance.

If your organization experiences a crisis, take a moment to look at all who have been affected. Who has been hurt? It may not be physical hurt – it could be financial or even their confidence in your organization has been harmed. Be clear and consistent in your compassion during the crisis. Never let this get lost.

Have a crisis communication plan in place

This is the most important learning from any crisis, big or small. You must have a plan in place to effectively deal with a crisis. Without a plan, you will be scrambling for how you will respond during the exact time that you need to be responding. In addition to a plan, key individuals on your team must be familiar with the plan and practiced in crisis response.

Some additional tools:

  • Check out Brian Ellis’ 10 rules for crisis management white paper.
  • What should your organization do during a national crisis? Should you stop all brand tweets? Stop promoting products? Send your thoughts for those affected? Some advice.
  • Onlinecolleges.net developed an infographic detailing how schools deal with crises online, and how to implement an online crisis policy at a school.

What communications lessons have you learned from last week’s events?

Image courtesy of yourthoughtpartner.com.

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2 Comments on “Crisis Communication Lessons from the Tragedy at Sandy Hook

  1. Pingback: How to Turn Bad News Into Positive Press for your Business

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