Chaotic Communication Adds to Pain of Texas School Shooting

In the Early Hours of a Crisis, Getting Things Right Trumps Fast Response

5/31/22 – – We’re all still processing the horror of last week’s mass murder in Uvalde, Texas. Continuing confusion about just what happened at Robb Elementary School that day is adding to the pain being felt by the victims’ families, the people of Uvalde and our nation.

All the facts are never known in the minutes and hours immediately following an incident of this magnitude. The fog of crises is as real and challenging as the fog of war. Spokespersons representing the school, Uvalde and local law enforcement had to feel overwhelmed not just by the unthinkable loss of life — 19 third and fourth graders and two teachers — but also by the responsibility thrust upon them to communicate with audiences desperate for information. Parents as close as the Robb School parking lot and reporters representing news outlets from around the world were demanding answers.

“How quickly did law enforcement respond to the event? Why was the shooter in a classroom for an hour before officers took his life, eliminating the threat? Was a back door to the school really propped open by a teacher?”

Unfortunately, initial news briefings, relayed in part by Texas Governor Greg Abbott, were inaccurate. Timeframes didn’t make sense, a report of a police officer confronting the gunman at the door of the school turned out to be false. As more and more information had to be pulled back and corrected, audiences lost trust in the credibility of the authorities providing the updates.

That mistrust continues to cloud news coverage, casting first-responders, school officials and local municipal leaders in a very negative light.

Hopefully, no one reading this blog will ever experience a crisis even close to the heartbreak, tragedy and news interest of last week’s shooting. But the botched communications response by individuals and institutions that should have been better prepared (there’s no excuse for the lack of coordination between the Governor’s office and local/state law enforcement) reminds us that there are two primary goals of crisis communication:

Be fast and be factual.

As we discuss in Chapter 14 of The Crisis Preparedness Quotient (“Tone, Tactics and Timeliness”), it’s hard, but necessary, to be both.

Crisis management counselors point to what they call the “golden hour” as the timeframe in which a company or institution must make its first substantive response during a crisis. The phrase has its roots in the field of emergency medicine. One of the greatest threats to trauma patients is loss of blood in the first minutes or hours after a gunshot wound, car accident, head injury, etc. That’s why ambulance teams and ER doctors are so focused on early intervention — to stop the bleeding and stabilize the patient.

While responding within the first hour of a crisis event is not always possible, it’s something to shoot for in today’s digital world of 24/7 news. It’s critical to begin addressing internal audiences and establishing your voice in the media coverage of the incident as soon as possible. Absent your voice, others will frame what happened and begin assessing blame.

“Tell it all and tell it once” is a good strategy when you have all the information to tell. But in most crises, including last week’s school shooting, that’s just not the case. Initial statements are perfectly acceptable if they simply establish your presence, express awareness and pledge to provide more information as it becomes available: “We’re engaged, we’re addressing the situation, we’re going to be a source of information moving forward.”

Never speculate or attempt to fill in information before it can be confirmed. Stick to the facts you know, no matter how much pressure you feel to say more (reporters will always want more and are good at making you feel inadequate).

At the public relations firm Hill & Knowlton, I had the honor and pleasure to work with Larry Speakes, who served as acting White House press secretary under President Ronald Reagan. On March 31, 1981, the day John Hinckley attempted to assassinate President Reagan (Larry’s boss, Jim Brady, was seriously wounded in the attack), Larry was in the White House addressing the press corps. He was handed a note stating that the President had died of his gunshot wounds on the operating table at George Washington University Hospital.

Following his instincts, Larry excused himself from the briefing room — reporters were demanding updates — and asked for verification of this momentous news. It turned out not to be true. Larry avoided the dishonorable place in history of being the guy who prematurely announced the President’s death.

I will always remember an evening after Larry had left the White House when over dinner with a number of former H&K colleagues he told us that story. He had a look of relief on his face. It’s a cautionary tale for all communicators pressured to speculate and disseminate news prematurely. Getting things right trumps speed.

If you question the value of crisis response drills, consider the lessons of Uvalde, Texas, and the wisdom of Larry Speakes. Make practice and preparation the compass that helps guide you through the fog of crisis.

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