Managing the Unimaginable: Crisis Communications After An Active Shooter Incident

Here’s how one Alabama middle school was able to effectively handle crisis communications in response to a shooting on campus.

Since the shooting was on a Friday afternoon, we executed a strategy to maintain contact with parents throughout the weekend. We let them know about a new safe schools tip line, a community-wide meeting on Sunday afternoon to address concerns, available counseling services throughout the weekend and a direct E-mail form to submit questions. We also announced that a school safety task force would evaluate current procedures and look for ways to prevent future incidents.

News Organizations Enlisted as Partners

From the beginning, we determined we would work closely with the media to disseminate accurate information quickly. Although initially some outlets sensationalized the story aggressively, when the news directors realized we intended to be as open as possible and to give them as many details as quickly as we could, they actually became our partners in serving the community instead of adversaries trying to trip us up at every turn.

Throughout all the communications with media and with the public, we had the challenge of operating within the constraints of a juvenile criminal case. There were many things we simply were not at liberty to divulge. While it was frustrating both to the public and to us, most understood the legal constraints in releasing specific details, including the identity of the suspect, motive, certain aspects of the incident itself and the names of witnesses. The questions were always asked, but everyone knew we would not be able to answer and why.

Campus Continued Media Contact for Several Days

In addition to the formal news conferences, we also held regularly scheduled conference calls that included participation by all news directors, print editors and online news directors. With this added level of communication, we were able to answer many pressing questions and determine the media’s upcoming needs. The calls gave us insight into topics we needed to address, and the media directors had confidence that we would provide them with as much as we could to assist them as well.

Our constant interaction with the media and the public continued throughout the next week once the students returned to school. The media respected our decision to protect the privacy of the students and focus on their needs during the school day. We allowed only minimal interviews outside the school during school hours – and only with adults and administrators.

We held our daily news conferences after school hours and provided access inside the building only after students had gone home for the day. Members of the media were respectful of our decisions and even supported us in preserving the students’ privacy.

We allowed media tours of the school and filming of the impromptu memorials throughout the building and hallways other than the one where the shooting took place. We did not permit filming of the actual scene of the shooting out of respect for the victim’s family.

Meeting Press’ Needs Kept Them Cooperative

The media was gracious in its recognition of our efforts throughout the week of the crisis. Four days after the shooting, an editorial titled “Keeping the Public Informed” included the following:

“In the aftermath of Friday’s deadly school shooting at Madison’s Discovery Middle School, public officials
are doing a good job of keeping citizens informed and seeking steps to make schools safer.”

Later on, one television news director sent an E-mail saying: “Thank you for your cooperation with the media. All other PR professionals should take a page from the playbook you guys have been using for your operations.” 

In the months since the tragedy, we have continued to keep the public informed. While the task force conducts its studies, regular updates are provided via the city Web site. Additionally, resource materials continue to be available, listserv communications continue to be sent to parents, and response to periodic media inquiries continues.

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