Staying Strong: Managing the Fallout From the Deadly Terrorist Attack in San Bernardino

July 22, 2016

[brian vander brug/getty images]
[brian vander brug/getty images]

Editor's note: On Dec. 2, 2015, 14 people were killed and 22 were seriously injured in a terrorist attack at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, Calif. Syed Rizwan Farook, a health inspector for the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health, and Tashfeen Malik, a married couple, opened fire at an office event. Farook and Malik were killed in a police chase and shootout a few hours after the attack.

Here, C.L. Lopez, the San Bernardino County Human Services communications officer, talks about that day, when many of her colleagues died, and the agency’s crisis management plan.

It does not matter how much time passes or how intimately familiar we are with what occurred on Dec. 2, 2015 — it will always seem unbelievable that our agency was the victim of the second-deadliest terrorist attack in the United States since 9/11.

The day began like any other day. We had just completed a month of events and were looking forward to a calmer December. Cynthia Malvin, the media specialist who supports Human Services’ nine departments, including the Department of Public Health, and I headed to lunch. Before we left, I had glanced at the list on my whiteboard of a few national news agencies I planned to pitch a story to, thinking all I wanted was for us to have national media coverage — never imagining that within moments the world’s eyes would be upon us.

When we were driving away from the facility, we noticed police activity. Streets were closed for several blocks, and the sirens seemed endless. When we reached the restaurant, a reporter from ABC called and told me what was developing. However, it was another of our county’s public information officers who arrived at the restaurant moments later to tell us our friends and colleagues from the Department of Public Health’s Environmental Health Services (EHS) division had been in an all-day training in the room where the attack took place.

Initial response

Law enforcement soon placed the county buildings on lockdown. The terrorists’ location was unknown. The restaurant became our refuge and temporary headquarters as we fielded calls from the media and tried to find out information about our friends and colleagues.

Public Health Public Information Officer Claudia Doyle was at the department’s administrative office watching news coverage from a conference room in order to identify which employees were safe. Her focus was on supporting the department and keeping the staff as informed as possible. Although we were in separate places, we remained in contact with Doyle and worked together.

Much of the media attention on the first day focused on law enforcement, though media inquiries to our department remained constant. We had close ties to one victim’s family, and over the next few hours, we did everything we could to assist them in getting answers. We checked the community center where survivors and witnesses were being taken after they had been questioned by investigators, in hopes of finding him, but unfortunately we did not.

While there, Public Health Director Trudy Raymundo and Assistant Director Corwin Porter arrived on one of the last buses bringing survivors to the community center. I was in awe of their strength. They had been in the room during the attack. Their priority now was their staff.

At that time, dozens of their team members remained unaccounted for. Families had been posting on social media seeking news about their loved ones, but it was nearly 24 hours before they would receive definitive information. However, posting online made it easy for the media to locate victims’ families, and on the morning of Dec. 3, reporters were already at the victims’ homes seeking interviews, even before their families knew what had happened.

The media plan

The only way for a family to gain some peace and privacy was to communicate in some form to the media. As the human services communications officer, I remained available as a point of contact, working with the media to ensure that reporters approached families with dignity and to remove some of their burden. We posted a statement on social media on behalf of a family, which we then distributed to media contacts, but it wasn’t enough. Public Health management also found reporters waiting outside their homes seeking interviews, visiting their homes multiple times, not allowing them any privacy. Something had to be done to manage the media.

I reached out to producers from the networks in hopes of convincing them to give the families and the victims some space. The network producers with whom I spoke agreed, and we planned to schedule interviews in a few days.

Raymundo and Porter agreed to do the interviews, in hopes of assuaging the media. National networks seemed determined to get a group of individuals who had been in the room together to discuss what they had witnessed and experienced, but the deeply traumatized staff did not have any interest in doing so. Raymundo and Porter were the natural choices for interviews as they were not only the department’s administrators, but they were also in the room during the attack.

Raymundo’s and Porter’s well-being was a priority for our Human Services Communications team. We planned to schedule as few interviews as possible. In order to make those few effective, we opted to do interviews with the major networks as they would reach a larger audience, and each network had multiple national news programs and hundreds of local affiliates.

When considering who would be the first to interview Raymundo and Porter, I thought of how I would want my loved ones to be treated — this incident was deeply personal for our close-knit county family. If all went well with the first interview, then we would move forward with the additional network interviews.

We selected CNN’s Anderson Cooper for the first interview on Dec. 4. Cooper’s team and I began communicating after they contacted a family seeking an interview. His producers were the most sensitive and considerate of the victims’ families and those involved, whereas other media boasted of ratings and their ability to reach the masses. Some media even spoke of flying EHS staff to the East Coast and spoke of tourist elements that would come with the trips, oblivious to the fact that this was a deeply traumatized group of people. We didn’t base our decision on ratings or incentives — it was simply a matter of what was going to be in the best interest of our team.

Having watched his interviews during coverage of previous tragedies, I was also familiar with Cooper’s interview style. Cooper showed empathy and compassion, and this was essential. I spoke with Cooper and his producers about some basic guidelines, such as what was appropriate to discuss and what they hoped to accomplish with the interview.

Raymundo and Porter wanted a platform to thank all who had responded to the incident and had supported and helped the victims and their families. They also wanted to encourage and support their staff. This was accomplished during the interview, and based on how it went, we proceeded with another interview with Cooper and one victim’s family.

We planned additional network interviews for Raymundo and Porter on Dec. 7. On that morning, San Bernardino County leaders responded to the media during a press conference. Once this was complete, Malvin, Doyle and I were able to move forward for scheduled interviews with NBC’s Miguel Almaguer, ABC’s Cecilia Vega and CBS’s John Blackstone.

Each network had 12 minutes to interview Raymundo and Porter. The interviews were kept brief to minimize the emotional toll of having to discuss the tragedy. A member of our Human Services Communications team was present during each interview to enforce the time restrictions and to ensure the overall well-being of Porter and Raymundo during the interviews.

The three interviews were successful in reaching a large audience, airing on national programming such as “Good Morning America,” ABC “World News Tonight” and “Nightline.” Local network affiliates across the country also aired portions of the interviews.

Media maintenance

In the months that have followed the tragedy, our approach with the media remains the same. We are committed to the well-being of our colleagues and friends. When we receive media inquiries, Doyle is extremely selective. We only do interviews with media outlets we know will be respectful of those involved.

Doyle or I are always present during interviews. We also use our own tools, including creating videos to communicate messaging from Raymundo and Porter. This offers a more comfortable and low-stress environment for on-camera interviews and has been effective with media, which have included links to the videos in their coverage.

There isn’t any training that can ever fully prepare you for the emotional impact of responding to a terrorist attack — especially one that involves friends and colleagues.

However, our Human Services Communications team has navigated this painful chapter with the skills from our years of crisis communications training, and we leaned on one another for support. It is our hope that no agency will ever experience anything of this magnitude, but we hope others will learn from our experiences.

C.L. Lopez
C.L. Lopez is the San Bernardino County Human Services communications officer and president of the California Association of Public Information Officials. Reach her on Twitter @C_L_Lopez or via email at cllopez@hss.sbcounty.gov.

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