Managing the Media Circus When VIPs Come to Campus

The media frenzy surrounding the attempted assassination of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was, by any measure, huge. When the external affairs team at Memorial Hermann found out she would be receiving medical treatment at their facilities, all five members kicked their media (including social media) management efforts into high gear.

Note: This is part 3 of “Guarding Gabrielle,” Campus Safety magazine’s three-part exclusive coverage of how two healthcare organizations effectively managed the care, security, privacy and press coverage of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords while she was being treated at their facilities.

The media frenzy surrounding the attempted assassination of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was, by any measure, huge. When the external affairs team at Memorial Hermann found out she would be receiving medical treatment at their facilities, all five members kicked their media (including social media) management efforts into high gear.

“You have to plan for how you’re going to accommodate the media because they’re always going to want something in situations like this,” says Memorial Hermann’s Interim System Executive for External Affairs James Campbell. “If you don’t, you leave them to their own devices.”

The department, which at the time of Giffords’ arrival was led by Beth Sartori, now the systems executive for marketing, made the decision early on to accommodate the press because there was a great deal of interest in the congresswoman’s story. They had to balance this decision, however, with the need for them to respect Giffords’ privacy. They achieved this by coordinating with her congressional staffers and PR team.

Even before Giffords was transported to the Memorial Hermann Texas Medical Center (TMC), the media, with the assistance of the TMC Police Department and Houston Police department, had begun to set up satellite trucks to on the streets adjacent to campus. Memorial Hermann also provided power and Internet connectivity.

While Giffords was receiving medical treatment in Arizona, the University of Arizona Medical Center provided the press with portable potties and meals.

The Memorial Hermann communications team initially put out a press release announcing Giffords would be coming to TMC and TIRR Memorial Hermann (where Giffords went through rehab). The team also issued a media alert so the press would know what was going to happen when the congresswoman arrived on campus. Then they held a press conference involving a team of physicians from both Texas and Arizona who were involved in her care and transfer.

When Giffords was being treated in Arizona, the University of Arizona Medical Center would hold press conferences every day. When she was transported to Texas, Memorial Hermann officials, in conjunction with Giffords’ family and her congressional staff, decided they would hold press conferences when she would reach certain milestones.

Additionally, they set up tours of TMC and TIRR Memorial Hermann so the media could see first-hand the equipment she would be using during her rehabilitation and the workout area. Her attending physician – Dr. Gerard Francisco – and various therapists explained and demonstrated the various exercises they employ to treat patients who suffer traumatic brain injuries (which Giffords endured in the shooting) without specifically talking about her treatment. This helped them to avoid breaching her privacy or violating the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

In general, these policies worked well. Noted television journalists like Sanjay Gupta, Katie Couric and Diane Sawyer interviewed Giffords’ family or physicians, and very few rogue reporters attempted to circumvent the system set up by Memorial Hermann’s communications team.

Other Best Practices:

  • By allowing reporters to come in and videotape TIRR Memorial Hermann, the communications department was able to limit the number of rogue reported trying to get in and take photos
  • To reduce the number of media representatives in your facility, provide still photos and B-roll video of the rooms and workout areas where patients will receive treatement
  • To reduce the number of cameras, provide a “pool” camera, whereby one camera takes all of the video and shares it with the other broadcasters. In Memorial Hermann’s case, the communications department allowed a different local affiliate each time to provide footage of a press conference or other media activity
  • Provide the media with story ideas and angles they can use
  • Coordinate with the patient, his or her family, and their representatives
  • The doctors should act as spokesmen and be provided with talking points
  • Don’t forget to accommodate the local media: “We had to also think about providing angles and stories for them because we didn’t want them to be angry at us after the national media left,” says Campbell

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Photo via Flickr, complexify

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About the Author

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Robin has been covering the security and campus law enforcement industries since 1998 and is a specialist in school, university and hospital security, public safety and emergency management, as well as emerging technologies and systems integration. She joined CS in 2005 and has authored award-winning editorial on campus law enforcement and security funding, officer recruitment and retention, access control, IP video, network integration, event management, crime trends, the Clery Act, Title IX compliance, sexual assault, dating abuse, emergency communications, incident management software and more. Robin has been featured on national and local media outlets and was formerly associate editor for the trade publication Security Sales & Integration. She obtained her undergraduate degree in history from California State University, Long Beach.

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