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Media Training: Accurate Messaging

  June 4, 2022

Accurate messaging is never more important than during and after a mass casualty incident.  Whether it's an airplane crash, a workplace shooting, a collapsed building or any event in which multiple lives are lost, bad information can cause a lot of hurt.  These incidents are fluid and no one should expect that the first news briefing will answer all questions.  But when explanations very wildly from day to day, the public starts to lose faith in the agencies and officials they need to count on.

Following the horrific mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, officials gave ever-changing timelines.   Day after day the stories changed.  While the community grieves, investigations are underway of who did what, when as law enforcement agencies responded to the scene. CNN did what is often referred to as an "ambush interview" with the school district's police chief,  who reportedly was the incident commander who made the decision to not have officers immediately rush the gunman.  The chief headed in to the police station via a backdoor but that didn't stop the reporter from peppering him with questions as they walked.  The chief came off evasive and at a time when families need answers, the stall tactic was not a good idea.

Some people will say ambush interviews are unfair.  In some cases, they are.  But I believe this one was journalistically sound.  Further, it really should not have come as a surprise to the guy at the center of the investigations. 

To be sure, mass casualty incidents are tough to talk about.  Imagine being an airline official who has to share the worst of news with victims' families and to the public in general.  Or, a business owner facing the media following a workplace shooting.  Or, a mayor whose city is hit by a deadly tornado.  It's hard.  If you ever find yourself in this type of situation, there are few basics.

  • Share what limited information you have in a timely manner.
  • Tell the media when you plan to brief again.
  • Don't keep pushing the briefing off as this only leads to speculation which can be factually wrong and doesn't serve the public well.
  • Have some groundrules for your pressers.  It shouldn't become a free-for-all.
  • If a mistake is made, own it.  Now is not the time for finger-pointing.
  • Don't have too many cooks.  The public will always want to hear from the top person, but when that isn't possible, try to stick with one alternate to speak to the media. 
  • Realize that people around you, or at other agencies, may be talking to the media or even leaking to the media without your knowledge.  This is understandable as journalists try every way in to the story.  Be sure to assign people on your team to monitor media coverage (both traditional and social media).
  •  Even the most media-saavy person who goes before the cameras at a time like this, can get emotional.  People close to you may have been among the victims.  You're not a robot.  But at a certain point, you need to find a way to compose yourself if you are to effectively communicate to the public.
  • Don't make it all about you.  Maybe you remember a mine executive years ago who told the assembled media, "Welcome to the worst day of my life."   This after one of the worst communication errors ever during a disaster--early reports indicated 12 trapped miners were alive.  In reality 11 of them had already died.  A complicated set of circumstances resulted in the mis-reporting.  It may well have been the CEO's worst day, but in that moment he forgot it's the victims and their families who matter, not him.

At times like this some officials see the media as an annoyance or worse.  It's more productive to see the assembled press simply as a conduit to the public.  But if your messaging doesn't add up, reporters' questions will quickly become aggressive and the news conference can take on a hostile atmosphere. 

If you are in a senior position in a high-risk industry, you need be to trained in crisis communications.  And while you can't plan for every possible scenario, learning the basics is a good place to start.

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