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Love and honor: How do you find your way when the crisis is your family’s tragedy?

December 3, 2007

Copyright © 2007 PRSA. All rights reserved.

By Ami Neiberger-Miller, APR

The following article appears in the December issue of PR Tactics.

You’ve managed media relations for clients with finesse and navigated crises with ease, but can you keep your bearings when the story hits close to home? What if the story is not about your client, but your family?

This past August, I was on a family vacation at the beach getting ready for an evening barbecue when I received devastating news from my aunt. My 22-year-old brother, U.S. Army Specialist Christopher Neiberger, had been killed in Iraq by a bomb while on patrol in his Humvee. In a heartbeat, my world turned upside down, and I was immersed in a personal crisis.

I am no stranger to crisis management. After Hurricane Katrina, I handled
an avalanche of media attention at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children for the largest missing child recovery effort in our nation’s history. I have faced attack ads and rallied supporters for threatened programs.

But this was different. Overnight, we became the grieving family of a soldier who had died in service to our nation. My family’s private pain would be public, scrawled across TV screens, airwaves, newspapers and blogs. As a PR professional, how do you find your way when the story is your family’s tragedy?

Collect information and build consensus
We packed up the beach house and raced to my parents’ home in Gainesville, Fla. En route, I spoke with my family by cell phone, and we began to talk about what to do about the press. The consensus among the family was that we wanted to talk to the media about my brother but with limits.

Set limits on access
I worried that crews would park near my parents’ home or film it, and made clear to reporters that this was not allowed. Camera crews staked out spots for coverage at the memorial service, which was attended by nearly 900 people. Respecting our wish for discretion, media clustered behind yellow tape at Arlington National Cemetery to film and photograph my brother’s burial from a distance.

Identify your allies with the press early
Because we wanted to talk about my brother’s life, our natural ally was our hometown press. Less than 15 hours after finding out our brother had died in Iraq, my surviving siblings and I sat down in our parents’ living room to talk one-on-one with a newspaper reporter. We shared family photos and stories with her, and I kept a package of selected materials readily available in my e-mail account to forward to media.

Listen to your mother
No one in our family did on-camera television interviews that first week because my mother was not comfortable with it. It didn’t matter that I knew the senior management at the local TV station or that I had worked in public relations for more than 10 years. I was still her daughter, and nothing I could say would convince her that I wouldn’t be traumatized further by an on-camera interview.

As much as I disliked mom’s no on-camera TV interview policy, in hindsight, it was the right call. When I heard my voice on the radio talking about my brother, I was shocked. The stress was having a bigger impact than I realized.

Find others to help tell the story
Because our immediate family was not doing any on-camera interviews, the TV station interviewed our minister, family friends, and even my brother’s scout leaders and Sunday school teachers. The result was a fuller portrait of my brother’s life. They used clips from an audio interview with me, as well as some of our family photos, to round out the stories.

Help family members understand the media
As I talked to the Associated Press around 10 the first night in Florida, I overheard some of my family questioning why I was on the phone with reporters so late. Wouldn’t talking to one be enough for all of them? I gently explained how the media works and that if I hadn’t done the interview then, the reporter would have still written her story because of her deadline.

Not all media will behave
The crews from outside our hometown were the worst. A television station with a reputation for sensationalism sought an on-camera interview with my parents the day after my brother died. We declined. TV crews stalked our relatives statewide via the Internet and with satellite trucks. One reporter lied to our relatives saying we had shared their phone numbers with him.

Insulate your family from too much exposure to media coverage
It was difficult for my parents to see my brother’s picture on the front page of their local newspaper with the headline about his death. Seeing it on a newsstand at the grocery store brought my mother to tears. After that, my siblings and I took turns buying the paper every day. When pictures of my brother’s shattered Humvee ran on CNN, we switched the channel.

Know that the heart of the matter is not the media
Don’t minimize or avoid processing your grief. I juggled the needs of press alongside the needs of my family. When the two conflicted, my family won. I wish now that I had called a PR friend in Florida and asked for help. After my brother’s memorial service, I stood in a receiving line for more than 90 minutes. The reporters stood in line to get quotes from us or interviewed other attendees.

Face problems head on and rely on your friends
When we heard that a radical group intended to protest my brother’s memorial service in our hometown, both our pastor and our casualty resource officer offered advice to help diffuse the situation. The Patriot Guard, a group of veterans with motorcycles, wanted to stage a counterdemonstration, but we asked them to attend the memorial service instead. The local police department was on-site and made the protestors stay far from the church. We couldn’t even hear them.

Focus on what matters — your loved ones — not stray opinions
The Patriot Guard riders took my parents’ invitation and filled the church with about 60 leather-clad bikers filling the choir loft. My brother would have loved it, and their presence honored his memory. As painful as it was to see four people with hate-filled signs outside my brother’s memorial service, their presence also represented my brother’s life. He believed that everyone should have the right to their own opinions. We focused on my brother’s life, not what others thought about it.

Good things come back to you
The protestors were only covered as a side story. Many reporters and photographers said they appreciated the access we permitted, and they understood that we needed to set boundaries in our time of grief. Our generosity of spirit and time with the media paid off.

When I look back at the clips and photos from those first two surreal weeks, I see my brother’s life and sacrifice honored in so many ways. Because we worked with the press, Christopher wasn’t just another statistic on a newscast. One of the bleakest periods in my life was also one of the proudest. I was able to honor my brother, insulate my family and help the press do its job in a way he would have appreciated.

Ami Neiberger-Miller, APR, owns Steppingstone LLC, an independent PR and graphic design firm near Washington, D.C. Based on her experience after her brother’s death, she wrote a guide for military families on handling media, available at www.SteppingstoneLLC.com.

Comments

Brad Rawlins says:

Ami, Thanks for writing an article that hits close to home for many people. We probably all know a family or two that has met with tragedy and was not prepared to deal with the media on top of their grief and emotion. A few years ago, I became aware of how we can use our talents and knowledge to help these families. During the winter, the Utah Dept. of Transportation fires Howitzer canons into the mountains to control for avalanches. One of their canons over shot a mountain nearly 12,000 ft high (bigger than the broad side of a barn). The shell landed in the back yard of my neighbor. Miraculously, no-one was hurt. But, shrapnel punched holes throughout the house and there was a crater in their back yard. The FBI, Homeland Security, and the media all arrived to assess the situation. I watched the whole thing like everyone else in the neighborhood. The next day I went to work. When I came home my wife told me about the media circus in our neighborhood and how our neighbors, who are very private and reserved people, had to deal with press and TV all day long. I slapped my head and thought, why didn't I volunteer my services? I vowed that if I knew anyone in a similar situation, I wouldn't stand by idly. This past summer, a 11-year-old boy, who was a good friend to my boys, was dragged out of his tent by a black bear and killed. He was camping with his family at the time. There was a lot of controversy with the case because the bear had attacked campers in the same spot just 18 hours before. So, the media was focused on whether the Forest Service and Division of Wildlife Resources had done in enough to prevent this from happening. I really didn't know the parents of the child well. As you can imagine, they were devastated by the tragedy. The maternal grandparents agreed to be the family spokespeople. I contacted them to offer my services. They weren't sure how I could help them. I found out that the grandfather had already been interviewed by a local Fox TV station that got the boys name the night before it was to be released by the sheriff's office. I went to their house and I told them what to expect for the next 24-hours. They were amazed to think that they would be the target of so much media attention. We established a time for a press conference the next morning and went over some talking points. Then we watched the Fox broadcast. Before the package was over, the phone started ringing. I handled all of the media calls for the next couple of hours, and then stayed with the family to talk about what they really wanted to say about their grandson and how they felt about the Forest Service. We decided to not make that a focus of our comments, but instead to talk about the young boy. The next day we held the 30-min news conference. This was done in order to control for media access to the family. The last thing I wanted was for the family to feel that it needed to be accessible all day long. After the news conference, the media were instructed to communicate only with me. I must admit, after the initial pushes for exclusive access, the media followed the wishes of the family. The mother and step-father were never interviewed by the media. There were several requests, mostly from national media, to interview them. Offers of flying them to New York, placing them in a nice hotel, etc., came in frequently. But, my focus was on what was best for the family, while operating as a buffer to meet the basic needs of the media. The whole experience illustrated to me how many families are not prepared for a media intensive experience. When I read that you wrote a guide for military families, I thought "how wonderful!" I must admit that the few days I spent helping this family was one of the more rewarding experiences I've had in PR. I hope we might all step up when we have the chance to help these families.

Dec. 3, 2007

Stephanie Frogge says:

Ami and PRSA, What a wonderful article! I'm grateful to the author for using her private experience to educate all of us and to PRSA for giving her the forum. As Brad suggests in the previous comment, what is the point of our expertise if we don't use it help people - really help people when unusual circumstances thrust them into the media spotlght?

Jan. 2, 2008

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