Four months after a gunman killed five people at Northern Illinois University, I traveled to the DeKalb, Ill., campus to interview Melanie Magara.
As the school’s chief communicator, Magara had led the massive media relations effort in the minutes, hours, days, and months after the Feb. 14, 2008, shooting.
When we met, she conceded that she was exhausted and that the enormity of the situation had only begun to sink in.
“I think all of us feel something settling in, you know?” she told me at the time. “Many of us three, four months since the event, only now find ourselves thinking about it and allowing ourselves to grieve.”
Margara is among a number of professional communicators at schools, law enforcement agencies, companies, and places of worship who were responsible for keeping the public and the media informed in the aftermath of mass shootings.
Last Friday, Lt. J. Paul Vance joined this group after a lone gunman entered Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut and killed 20 children and six adults. For 15 years, Vance has led the public information office for the Connecticut State Police. His tireless work in the days after the shooting has won him praise from journalists, law enforcement officials, and PR practitioners.
Vance “has been doing a heroic job under terrible circumstances,” said Gil Rudawski, the crisis communication chief at GroundFloor Media in Denver. “He’s running on adrenaline now, but exhaustion will set in soon.”
Like Margara, Scott Pattison understands that exhaustion.
Just six months into Pattison’s job as media relations advisor with the Edmonton Police Department, a phone call woke him at 1 a.m. on a Friday in August. A duty officer on the other end calmly explained that a gunman had killed three people at the University of Alberta and left one critically wounded.
The shootings had occurred in connection with a robbery, and the gunman was still at large.
As police sought the killer, Pattison, a veteran journalist and PR professional, began gathering facts and speaking with reporters from around the globe. He worked for 23 hours straight before he was urged to take a break and sleep for an hour.
“You go into remote control—other people’s emotions are paramount, so you do your best for them,” he said. “The worst thing is a lack of communication.”
Under such terrible circumstances, PR professionals need to put their emotions aside as much as possible and get to work sharing information, explained Pattison.
The gunman in this case was caught roughly 36 hours after the shootings, but the work of disseminating information to the public didn’t stop.
“Even after the initial push, there was a crushing amount of work,” Pattison said.
NIU’s Margara said the interest in and aftermath of the shooting in DeKalb went on much longer than she had anticipated. “My staff and I worked 19 straight days, about 16 hours a day, until we could get past the really first [wave] of media interest,” she told me in 2008.
More work to come
Less than a week after the shootings in Newtown, the news media continue to feed the public’s hunger for information about the staggering tragedy. Vance’s work continues along with theirs.
“The true test for him will be in the weeks to come as the media get more and more anxious and starts to bend decency rules in an effort to report information first,” said Rudawsky, who was a reporter and editor at the Rocky Mountain News.
“With the Columbine and Aurora shootings, we found that at some point the spotlight will be turned on the response, as the media asks if law enforcement did all they could to prevent this tragedy,” he continued. “There may be leaks that will cause rifts among law enforcement agencies, testing Lt. Vance’s fortitude.”
So far, however, he’s remained calm and compassionate, attempting to give news reporters timely and accurate information.
Pattison said sharing correct information is essential, but so is putting that information into context. “You need to take your time and get it right,” he said.
Much of the initial reporting from Newtown was inaccurate. To ensure the accuracy of future reporting, Vance told journalists on Sunday to consider him the sole reliable source of information.
“All information relative to this case is coming from these microphones,” Vance said. “Any information coming from other sources cannot be confirmed, and in many cases it’s been found as inaccurate.”
Praise for Vance
That sort of approach won him accolades from many members of the press, including Chicago Sun-Times critic and reporter Lori Rackl. In a column published Dec. 15, Rackl said Vance exemplifies the role of a media relations advisor.
“Composed yet compassionate, straightforward without being robotic or wooden, Vance comes across as a cop who views his relationship with reporters as cooperative rather than adversarial, more of a partnership than a necessary evil,” she wrote.
Hinda Mitchell, vice president at the PR agency CMA, shared Rackl’s opinion of Vance.
“Lt. Vance … inspires trust because he is calm, confident and straightforward, despite incredibly challenging circumstances,” she told PR Daily. “In all of his interviews, he carefully communicates the extensive scope of the investigation and sets expectations early that this is a process that is going to take significant time to fully investigate.”
Mitchell said an essential part of crisis response is providing enough details to reassure the public without going beyond what is appropriate to report at the time.
“He answers questions in an honest and forthright manner, and he does not seem to let the rumors that are running rampant throughout the coverage affect his response,” she added. “He combines compassion for the victims and their families with the need to report the facts as they are known.”
Michael Sebastian is the managing editor of sister site, PRDaily.com.