On October 21st a 12 year-old Nevada boy brought a gun to his school, killed a teacher, shot two other students, then killed himself. The shooting left families devastated in a continuing saga of gun-related school incidents. Sadly, the crisis was intensified and prolonged by the failure of the local authorities to use standard and best practices in managing public relations. At times it seemed that there was a vacuum in media management. At other times it seemed that government officials from China had been employed to handle community relations.
Sparks Middle School – A tragedy made worse
In any crisis situation there is panic followed by confusion, rumors, and fear. The first goal is to resolve the immediate crisis. In most situations this will involve turning over control of the facilities and situation to law enforcement and other first responders.
However, the second goal of an organization in a crisis is to reduce the confusion, rumors, and fears. This process must start as quickly as possible, and sometimes it must be done before the crisis is under control by first responders.
In the Nevada incident, parents throughout the Reno community¹ were aware of an active shooter on a local school campus within minutes of the 7:15 AM shooting incident. There were 20 to 30 eyewitnesses when the teenager shot a teacher, who then reportedly went into the school and killed himself . It was all over within a few minutes.
(¹The shooting occurred in Sparks, Nevada, a suburb of Reno.)
In the first hours following the shooting some rumors persisted that police were looking for the suspect; however, it is likely that law enforcement on the scene knew within ten to fifteen minutes that shooter was dead. With the suspect dead, the priorities of the first responders were to render assistance to the wounded, secure the students and school, secure the crime scene, and gather information.
Children became the official information source of the shooting
At least eight different sources were quoted in the first few hours after the shooting. This would indicate that the Washoe County School District and the various law enforcement agencies responding did not select a skilled spokesperson to manage the post-shooting situation. At 7:42 AM, less than 30 minutes after the shooting, the Reno Gazette Journal reported the following:
- A shooting had occurred at Sparks Middle School
- A police spokesperson had confirmed that the shooter was ‘neutralized’
- Police were looking for the suspect
- The school was on lockdown
- The students had been evacuated
It shouldn’t be a surprise that the information coming from the crime scene in the first hour of the incident will be in conflict; however, the role of the primary spokesperson is to rapidly identify rumors and incorrect facts and address them. Two hours after the shooting a press conference was held. This was the opportunity for local authorities to reduce anxiety, confusion, and fear by detailing critical information. By answering as many of the basic questions (who, what, where, when, why, how) as possible the public could be reassured that despite the tragedy, authorities knew what happened and had the situation under control. After the press conference the Reno Gazette Journal reported:
“Authorities released few details about a shooting at about 7:15 a.m. at Sparks Middle School during a 9:15 a.m. press conference.”
If the families of the dead and wounded had not been notified then it would not have been appropriate to release the names; however, authorities wouldn’t even confirm whether teachers or students had been shot. Students began reporting what happened to the media and with no cooperation from local authorities, the families were contacted. That is the symptom of absent or inept media management.
Forcing Children To Be Spokespeople
Within minutes after the shooting word spread, not just within the local community, but around the world. Instantly parents, grandparents, relatives, and friends of school-age children began asking questions. What school? Was anyone killed? How many were shot? Who was killed or injured? Was it over? Why did it happen? Is my child/grandchild safe?
By withholding the details the local authorities did not withhold the story they just lost management of it. Without an official source for information the witnesses, in this case, mostly children, became the official spokesperson. To make the blunders of the first day worse, suburban police and city officials refused to release the name of the shooter for three days, citing that his name did not appear on any ‘report.’
The Public’s Right To Know Not the Correct Issue
Local media was incensed by the stonewalling of the authorities to release the name; however, this was more than an issue of the public’s Right to Know. The stated reason by authorities to withhold the shooter’s name was to protect the family, the failure to release this information put more focus on the shooter’s family to confirm or deny the rumors that were rampant within the community.
A skilled spokesperson would have understood this and worked to ensure that the information was appropriately released while also urging the media to respect the family’s need to grieve.
Who Owns Information?
In the 20th century mass communication came with a catch. Access to information could be controlled. The public knew what the government, public relations staff, editors, and news directors wanted us to know. That changed with the Internet and Social Media. Information is fluid and it will flow through any conduit it can find. Information desired by the public will find the quickest path and anyone who believes they can stop the flow of it is only diverting it through another source. A spokesperson can and should be the quickest path for facts and information because it will reduce the fear, confusion and rumors.
The mishandling of the crisis in Nevada should serve as a lesson as to why a skilled, experienced crisis manager and spokesperson should be a part of every organization. No tragedy should be made worse by inept local authorities.