The Public Relations Strategist

Learning From the Pulse Nightclub Tragedy

October 26, 2017

Even for professionals who work in crisis-prone industries, receiving 3 a.m. phone calls from bosses or co-workers — especially on the weekend — can be a jarring experience.

During a PD session on Oct. 8 at the PRSA 2017 International Conference in Boston, panelists shared their experiences following one of the most deadly U.S. mass shootings at Orlando, Fla.’s Pulse nightclub.

Heather Fagan, the deputy chief of staff for Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, recalls getting a late-night call in June 2016 about the event, and then quickly helped mobilize the city’s crisis management response.

One of the first orders of business was planning the initial news conference, which they set for 7:30 a.m. on June 12. They decided that Dyer, who is Orlando’s longest-serving mayor, was the logical choice to provide the first update.

“We thought it was important that he [was] the face of this,” Fagan said. “He could help bring calm to the community. He could help assure that people were safe, but also he would set the tone for civic resilience and let people know that we would get through this.”

Kena L. Lewis, APR, director of public affairs and media relations at Orlando Health, received a phone call from the CCO of the Orlando Regional Medical Center (ORMC) at 3:09 a.m. EMTs were transporting many of the wounded victims there.

ORMC was well-prepared for crisis situations, holding monthly “trauma alert” training drills with other local EMS agencies. Lewis said that all of the doctors receive media training, especially trauma surgeons.

“I speak to a lot of health-care organizations, and I say, If you don’t get anything else out of this, get this: You have to be prepared,” Lewis said.

In terms of preparation, Fagan suggests having a “go bag” at the ready with “things you might need if you get called at 3 a.m. and have five minutes to get ready — chargers, laptop, a change of clothes.”

Fagan recalled pulling a City of Orlando polo shirt from her laundry hamper before leaving the house, a garment she ended up wearing longer than she ever intended.

She also suggested this: “Bring a notepad. With all the technology, I used my notepad more than anything. We were handwriting our remarks. We didn’t have a place to print them out. We were in the middle of a road.”

Sara Brady, who runs her own consultancy, found herself working on three crises receiving international news coverage simultaneously. Aside from the tragedy at Pulse, she was providing PR counsel after the murder of singer Christina Grimmie, who was shot in a theater near downtown Orlando, followed several days later by the death of a family’s child in an alligator attack near a Walt Disney World hotel.

Pulse owner Barbara Poma learned what was happening in her nightclub while on vacation in Mexico. She immediately flew home. Brady met with Poma and her family at their home, where many Pulse employees who had escaped the gunfire had also gathered.

“My role was to get them adjusted to what’s going to happen in the immediate, to what everybody in the family had to do, which was stop answering their phones and doors,” Brady said. “Even if you represent a small business, just having an immediate response [is important]. Know who’s going to speak and have two or three key messages for them.”

Staying grounded during crisis

The panelists credited their spouses with emotional support throughout the Pulse crisis.

While both the City of Orlando and the ORMC provided grief counselors for staff, a sole practitioner like Brady doesn’t have those resources available.

She has experience, though. Her husband is a retired police officer, and she’s a former police reporter. “We both lived those lives for a long time.”

Brady, who wrote about her experiences in the spring issue of The Strategist, said that she had to remain stoic throughout the crises.

“I’m in the room with survivors, the owners,” she said. “If I am emotional, I can’t help them. I come in and say, ‘This is what we have to do.’ You have to be a diplomat. You have to be sensitive to all the different moods. Believe me — they are up and down.”
 

John Elsasser

John Elsasser is the editor-in-chief of Tactics. He joined PRSA in 1994.

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