Crisis Communication in Action: Takeaways from Tucson Tragedy
“Communication is a complex activity under the best of circumstances and turns exponentially intricate when a crisis occurs. The mass shooting this past January 8 is a crisis that rocked not only Tucson, but is still being felt across our state and nation, and even around the world.” -Daphne Gilman and Jan Howard, Presidents of IABC Tucson and the Southern Arizona chapter of PRSA.
It is not often that those involved in communicating about a crisis talk publicly about the process of handling the events. But recently, Caliber team members had the privilege of attending a seminar at the University of Arizona: Crisis Communication in Action: Tucson in the International News. This program, sponsored by PRSA Southern Arizona Chapter and IABC Tucson, provided insight into the communications crisis that arose from the tragic shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and other victims on January 8. It was a unique opportunity to hear news leadership and institutional public information officers speak openly about this shared experience, and we would like to share the top takeaway messages with you.
The esteemed panel included:
C.J. Karamargin, Communications Director, U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords, District 8
George Humphrey, Assistant Vice President for Public Affairs, Arizona Health Sciences Center (AHSC)
Katie Riley, Director of Media Relations, AHSC
Sara Hammond, Director of Public Affairs, Arizona Cancer Center
Peter Michaels, News Director and Executive Producer for Broadcast News, Arizona Public Media
Jill Jorden Spitz, Assistant Managing Editor, Arizona Daily Star
Forrest Carr, Head of the News Department, KGUN 9/KWBA
Johnny Cruz, Assistant Vice President for Communications, University of Arizona
The panel participants shared individual stories of how they learned of the shootings on the morning of January 8, how they responded, and what they did to take action from a professional standpoint. While panelists shared processes that led to communication success, they also shared the sentiment that we are rarely totally prepared to handle a crisis. There are a lot of decisions made on the fly. Applying the following five takeaways will greatly improve a communicator’s likelihood of successfully getting the appropriate message out.
1. Keep information flowing. “The media is like an oil well: when the oil runs out, it starts to spit sand,” said Forrest Carr of KGUN9. He stressed that media will find information to disseminate, and it may not always be correct. When sources such as the doctors and police would not give up any information (mainly due to privacy issues), rumors started to circulate. Release official information – even if it’s very little – as quickly as possible. Initial, unofficial conflicting reports led to confusion and misinformation on January 8.
2. Find a balance between speed and accuracy. Every second you delay getting good information out, bad information will multiply. For the media, getting the story out first is extremely important. Providing a story that is error-free is also extremely important. Jill Jorden Spitz of the Arizona Daily Star noted that even their strict policy requiring two reliable sources before publishing a story was faulty during the crisis feeding frenzy.
3. Use a spokesperson with authority. Katie Riley of the AHSC noted that once an authoritative spokesperson, Dr. Peter Rhee, confirmed that U.S. Representative Giffords was in fact alive, it put a cease to all reports that said otherwise.
4. Take care of your local media. When the national media swoops in, remember that you have to live here after they’re gone. According to Karamargin, Congresswoman Giffords always made the local media a priority. So when the opportunity presented itself, Karamargin made sure the local media were given the privilege of an exclusive roundtable interview with Giffords’ husband Mark Kelly. The national media outlets were not fond of this decision, but at the end of the day when large national outlets have moved on, the local media will still be there.
5. Do not let your communications strategy be driven by attorneys. Attorneys’ jobs are to keep you safe in litigation. Remember that you will be tried in the court of public opinion long after you are tried in the court of law. This isn’t to say that you ignore legal advice; heed it and consider the people involved as well.
The seminar organizers also published a list of some of the most valuable tips to plan for a crisis.
- Establish communications vehicles that enable you to speak directly to your target audience. Media is only one component of an issues management crisis/communications strategy.
- Use social media to disseminate information and monitor outlets for misinformation.
- Before an incident occurs, have your strategy and resources in place for communication with the media (press conference materials, media lists, emergency numbers, etc.). Keep a backup copy at home or in a vehicle.
- Maintain a list of volunteers/interns you can call on to assist.
Every member of the panel agreed that it is extremely crucial to surround yourself with people you trust in order to get a job done and get your message out effectively. They emphasized the importance of putting victims first, as victims and their families should never be surprised to read anything about themselves in the media. And ultimately, if you can foresee a crisis, get ahead of it. Don’t wait for a news organization or whistleblower to call you out. Be proactive!