Wednesday, September 1st, 2010
A Gun, a “Bomb,” and 3 Hostages = Crisis Communication Time
If you watched television today between 2 and 5 p.m. eastern you watched a real life “Flashpoint” drama unfold before your eyes. In summary, a man with a history of protesting at the Discovery Channel Headquarters in Silver Spring, MD, walked in with a gun and several potentially explosive devices. He wrote a full manifesto about his position, his demand for the cable network to drop any programming related to war, cruelty to animals, and other issues. Wednesday afternoon, just after one o’clock eastern time, he walked into the building and took three hostages. He began negotiating with investigators at 2 p.m. and was shot by police at 4:48 p.m.
Now that we have the facts, let’s talk about the Police Chief’s communication through the events. Here’s what he did well:
- Established a schedule of updates for the media (they appeared to occur every thirty minutes)
- Never revealed the identity of the hostages during any of the briefings
- Confirmed information that would not compromise conversations with the suspect
- Confidently stated that he would answer certain questions (that would compromise the situation)
- Provided information about the evacuation, the children who were in the building’s daycare facility
- Overall, the Police Chief maintained calm, and established himself as both the authority figure and as a person who is fully aware of the situation, its dangers, and in possession of a clear plan to work toward a successful end to the situation. He is had the situation under control. He terminated the updates whenever he had to go back to work on the next step.
Upon conclusion, he confirmed additional information that he had previously stated he was intentionally withholding as a matter of public and/or hostage safety. His continuous updates and final news conference were done in a timely, efficient fashion. Sure, he had a BUNCH of ”uhs” and “ums” but given the frequency of his updates, he did not have time to practice his delivery. In a scheduled interview, you would want a more polished delivery, but in live on-the-scene updates in the middle of a life and death crisis, the viewer is willing to give the benefit of the doubt.
Spokespeople are not there to make the lives of reporters easier, but as a former reporter, I have no doubt the reporters appreciated the information and his immediate update after the hostages were released and suspect was shot. They all went live at five with packages about the day’s events.
So if you find yourself as the spokesperson in a crisis situation, remember these important tips:
- Keep public/human safety in mind at all times.
- Always withhold information that could pose a threat or danger to anyone involved in the investigation or event itself.
- Give regular updates, even if the update is to say we have nothing new.
- Take care of the locals first. Your local reporters will be there long after the national folks leave. Better to have them giving you the benefit of the doubt in future events, than always on the attack because they have a grudge.
- When the situation is under control, release everything you can, that will not compromise any remaining investigations.
- Always withhold names of victims until you can confirm that their families already know. How would you like to learn that something happened to someone you loved, by watching television? Better to have a frustrated reporter than a devastated parent, spouse or child.
There are plenty of other tips for managing the media in a crisis, but to get them, you have to talk to me personally!
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