The Public Relations Strategist

When Ordinary People Become News Stories

April 24, 2017

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Never before has it been so easy for private citizens to be drafted suddenly into the public spotlight, only to find themselves alone fending against frightening and incessant advances by news media. In a matter of minutes, ordinary people just living their lives are shoved from privacy onto the global stage without a clue how to stay behind the curtain.

That was the case last summer in Orlando, Fla., where over a four-day period, ordinary individuals became the faces of three of the biggest news stories in the world.

It started with the June 10 murder of promising young singer Christina Grimmie, who was shot in a popular local theater near downtown Orlando, followed two days later by the Pulse nightclub mass shooting and then two days after that, the loss of a Midwestern family’s child in an alligator attack at a major theme park.

In each tragic episode, media from around the world reached out at all hours, to anyone and everyone who could connect them to the victims, family members, friends, first responders — anyone who could provide details of any kind. 

The unanticipated velocity, insensitivity and scope of news reporters, exacerbated by the vastness of social media, has everyone now at risk of becoming an instant target of media outlets. Whether involving a local or international issue, those suddenly yanked from the comfort of privacy are forced to deal with media mobs while attempting to absorb the details of the actual trauma itself.    

The competitive culture of 24-hour news has contributed to the need for crisis communication specialists who work in what has become a sophisticated discipline tucked beneath the umbrella of public relations. Corporate executives understand they are subject to media scrutiny, and when things go wrong their teams are usually prepared or at least know where to turn for counsel.

But individuals and small businesses, particularly those that function as public gathering spaces, are exceedingly vulnerable to becoming instant media fodder — and to potential destruction as a result. Once an incident occurs, news media descend like locusts at all hours, intruding upon the real-life priorities that no human being wants to face. 

Six months after the trifecta of sorrow that hit central Florida, those involved remain baffled about the media’s continued efforts to acquire an update, an interview or any tidbit about the victims as they work to move forward.

Protecting privacy

From the beginning, my role in all three of these horrific events has been and continues to be guiding inexperienced and shattered victims through each painful step of ongoing public attention. My responsibility is to protect their privacy and their grief.  

Reporters necessarily detach emotionally in order to focus on getting information. Victims, meanwhile, are dealing with unimaginable and brutal realities, losing loved ones or their livelihoods. Their emotions are rocked further by an invasion of reporters, also known as strangers, who have acquired personal cellphone numbers or home addresses and call or show up with questions. 

When Pulse owner Barbara Poma learned in real time what was happening in her nightclub, she flew back to Orlando, leaving behind a family vacation in Mexico. As soon as she stepped into her hometown airport, she received a call from a network news producer seeking an interview. Her phone continued to ring from one anonymous caller after another — the onslaught throwing her further into chaos. That same scene played out with each of my clients connected to the three Orlando tragedies.

Fending off aggressive news media is distracting, physically draining and adds an extraordinary emotional dynamic for those already struggling with a major tragedy, and simply not knowing what to do next.

Months later, I continue to field media inquiries and requests for personal information from all three clients. Preparing private individuals for the news media’s intrusiveness — as well as the public’s desire for new information, no matter how inconsequential — is necessarily an artful and thoughtful process. It is never easy to address individuals trying to absorb the loss of life just moments after it has happened. But without a compassionate strategic counselor, their grief is only compounded by the stress, distraction and risk of speaking to news media.

Here are some key takeaways for giving communications counsel to victims of personal tragedies:

  • Make your client feel safe. As a communicator in the most stressful of times, it’s important to always remember that your client is hurting, confused and uncertain about what’s ahead. They need to know you’re providing a layer of protection from outside distractions so they are able to focus on their immediate, personal needs.
  • Set expectations. Ordinary people never expect to be the subject of a national or international news story, and are understandably unfamiliar with the immediate and incessant demands from reporters or the public’s interest. From the beginning, letting them know in very simple terms what to expect, how you will navigate and what is the new normal, is ultimately valued and appreciated. 
  • Take charge. Inexperienced victims are best served by someone who understands and can manage both their needs and those of the news media. Make sure clients know not to answer their phones, and that reporters understand you are the source of information, which improves their chances of getting their questions answered.
  • Do battle when necessary. When news media exceed what is appropriate, pushback may be necessary to preserve that layer of protection your client needs and deserves. An overzealous producer or reporter may lose the privilege of receiving information. Diplomacy goes a long way to convey the serious nature of a lapse in judgment by a reporter or producer.
  • Be transparent. Both your client and the news media deserve transparency. Even though clients/victims are in pain, the reality is they need to be aware of how news media function, what is being shared with reporters, what won’t be shared and why. Reminding news media that you understand their needs — but making clear that information may be limited and explaining why — can contribute to a more successful relationship with reporters. 

Every crisis is different, and for a variety of reasons. But the basic tactics of good communication, transparency and integrity contribute to better media relationships — and more important, help minimize stress and disruption for inexperienced clients.

Sara Brady

Sara Brady specializes in crisis communications. She has worked on some of the nation’s biggest stories including the Trayvon Martin and Pulse nightclub shootings.

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