Wrong information, and a pro spokesman, in Newtown shootings crisis

We’re living through multiple crises involving: guns, facts, schools, mental health, parents, law enforcement, a president, a town, a nation.

When a deranged individual goes on a murder spree, we all feel the crisis’ impact in the global village.

Before we turn to a crucial component of a crisis, let’s look at one of the most difficult downsides: bad information. By their very nature, crises cause confusion. Their rapid pace magnifies mistakes. Many emerged from Friday’s shootings at the elementary school in Newtown, CT. They are almost unavoidable, especially in today’s world of instant tweets and posts and 24/7 demands from multiple media forms. People managing a crisis need to plan for that.

One of the biggest mistakes was the media’s early identification of the shooter — Adam Lanza — as his older brother, Ryan. The uninvolved older brother’s identification may have been in the shooter’s possession, making the mistake by law enforcement understandable, yet still frustrating and wrong. Ironically, it was in part Ryan Lanza’s ability to go on Facebook and make it clear he was not the guilty party that turned the information around.

This illustrates how the demand for information multiplies exponentially by the demands of a crisis. That’s also why our mantra is “facts-fast.” Confirmed facts, released in a timely manner. Repeat.

When there is a crisis, the organization that needs defending must also have a strong spokesperson ready and battle tested. Getting the information out fast and accurately is valuable — and helps avoid your critics filling an information void. Marshalling messaging and designating who will face the media is best determined in quiet crisis-planning sessions held prior to any crisis — if you are smart and do so.

J. Paul VanceThus we turn to one tiny positive aspect of these horrible shootings: Lt. J. Paul Vance. Just watching him for 10 minutes Saturday morning you could tell he was a pro. He didn’t just give information, or, as is most often the practice in such cases, stubbornly and defiantly withhold information.

He explained to the mass of reporters what he had, how he came by it, what the restrictions were that he and therefore they would have to work under and when he’d have further information.

That’s all reporters ask. ‘Give us factual information we can use.’ If you can’t, tell us why you can’t or won’t. Reporters and editors are reasonable people. They understand the restrictions placed over a multi-agency investigation such as these shootings, as well as their human impact. But they have jobs to do too.

A spokesman who earns reporters’ trust is able to do so by explaining, calmly and clearly, as Vance did, what he could say and what he could not. I do not know Vance’s reputation among Connecticut’s media. But I’d guess it’s pretty good. He seemed calm, honest, transparent and, most important, non-antagonistic.

He praised reporters’ questions, and answered them to the best of his ability. He explained that an hour later the coroner and school system superintendent would speak to the media. He repeated himself often, which is the sign of a smart spokesperson, not a distracted one.

These are all elements that a company wants to consider when choosing a crisis spokesman. Usually the CEO should be out front. But if the crisis is ongoing, a communications professional might be superior for hourly or repeated media briefings. This not only allows the CEO to attend to decision-making affecting the crisis, it makes certain that information continues to flow and that does not conflict with other demands on the CEO’s time.

Vance did everything correctly — something even more greatly appreciated under circumstances as terrible as these. It was one small sliver of right during some very bad few days.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the Northeast and Southeast. Learn more about EMA at http://www.mower.com. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.


About steveoncrisis

The content is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It comes from Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and as managing editor and editorial page editor at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower and Associates, one of the nation's largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agency with six offices in the Northeast and Southeast.
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