Tragedy, too, involves PR

We tend to think of crisis communication as those moments when famous or powerful people do something stupid, and PR people are called in to repair the damage. But this is a narrow specialty of the public relations profession. Our role in a crisis is often far more complex and significantly more important.

The horror at the Aurora, Colorado movie theatre this week leaves most of us at a loss… a loss for the right words to say and a loss for an understanding of how a brilliant young man can become so twisted. Reporting the facts of this case is the job of journalists who have (so far) told the story accurately and with much respect to the victims’ families. There’s been little sensationalism (so far) of the alleged gunman’s crime and personal history. Everyone connected to the tragedy–especially the law enforcement agencies and emergency response teams– have performed extraordinarily well under unthinkable circumstances.

Communication in such a moment of crisis has to be accurate, empathetic and, for the most part, immediate. These are the moments where public relations practitioners are at their best. Every authoritative entity involved in the theatre massacre needed to release facts and comments. The police departments, the FBI, the fire departments, the hospitals, the theatre owner Cinemark, the mayor of Aurora, Colorado’s governor, the gunman’s high school and colleges, the “Batman” promotions team, and other related institutions quickly disseminated information and made statements to the press. Even Barack Obama and Mitt Romney–both on scheduled campaign swings that day–suspended their activities and struck the right tone in their remarks to the American people.

And whatever their titles, the communication staffs for each of these entities have consistently been at the top of their public relations game, doing a superb job under the most difficult of circumstances. They’ve set the right tone at a time when mistakes could easily be made as information and public sentiment is moved so quickly to the media. Your thoughts?

6 thoughts on “Tragedy, too, involves PR

  1. Abdul

    I find effort of the media in showing empathy and respect to the victims and their families, as wells as the lack of speculations as to the possible motive behind such a senseless act of violence to be commendable.

  2. James V. D'Ambrosio

    In this case, the communications response was pretty well done, and respectful. Hopefully, such appropriate communications/media response will help set a precedent in subsequent crises — a focus on showing empathy and support for the victims and their loved ones and resisting the urge to speculate on what may or may not have precipitated such a terrible event. This is important, as we may never gain a full understanding of what may or may not have lead to this tragedy. Human behavior is too complex.

  3. Minyvonne Burke

    I believe this situation was handled very well by everybody involved. A lot of times during such a tragic, shocking and horrifying event it is easy to screw things up. I can honestly say that everyone (journalists, police departments, FBI, hospitals etc) worked together during this event to make sure the public was well aware and up-to-date about new developements and knew what was going on. I like how so far the media has done a good job honoring the victims and less about Holmes and his background (even though I think the only reason the media is not all over Holmes’ background is because they can’t find anything).

  4. Valentine Francois

    This is one instance where the media didn’t jump the gun. I am very surprised because normally there is a “report first, retract later” mentality that has become a little too normal. As a Journalist, I am proud of the way the reporting was done, everyone took a step back, reported accurate information that was available and made no assumptions. A tragedy like this hits home for almost every American, so compassion and empathy are definitely a must. Let us hope that the sentiment continues.


    Though “mistakes could easily be made as information and public sentiment is moved so quickly to the media,” the communication staffs for each of these entities can still be honest to share new facts and information. Being empathetic can gain trust from the public. Spreading information whatever they have is better than hiding and delaying. No one knows what is really “accurate,” but the public need to know all details.

  6. Ty

    In moments when your breathe is snatch from you in a horrific event, the key thing to remember is to coming off genuine. All officials who stepped up to the plate showed compassion. No one to my knowledge stepped out of bounds or even assumed when there was little knowledge of the situation.

    Friday morning I walked into my apartment at 4 a.m., upon entry I received an AP alert to my phone. The alert was one simple sentence “Shooting in Colorado Movie Theater”. As another hour went past, more and more was added to the previous story. By the time I woke up, there was already an ID on the perp and a official number on those injured. My point is that AP or news organizations in general did a fantastic job at giving us the information when they received. I never once seen information that had to be pulled due to being inaccurate.


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