Valentine's Day Massacre Shows Importance of Media Training
A week after the terrible school shooting in Florida, a showdown has developed between kids using social media and the National Rifle Association and the US politicians the NRA has bankrolled. If there's any justice in this world the kids will win, but they have an uphill struggle.
The morning after the shooting took place, I got a call from my old colleague Ronald Kustra. Ron is one of the most respected communicators in you can find. He asked if I had seen the news conference in Florida that had just taken place, because it was a great example of how authorities should communicate after a crisis.
Ron offered to write a guest blog for me and followed up with a great rundown of that news conference and the importance of media training. Today's blog is from Ron Kustra, with my appreciation.
History Repeats Itself, But Worse
89 years after Chicago’s infamous Valentine’s Day massacre in which seven men were killed, on February 14, 2018, in a Florida high school a former student killed 17 people and wounded more than a dozen others. It is beyond tragic and horrific.
The 24/7 media invasion began within minutes, soon achieving a hurricane-like intensity for which the state is known. How Florida authorities handled the media and how President Trump mishandled his media profile were displayed back-to-back on a NBC news special the next morning.
Florida Authorities Step to the Mic
The outdoor news conference was impromptu magic with numerous key players rotating at the microphone, depending on the media’s questions. They included Broward County Police Chief Scott Israel, who appeared to be the de facto chair; Florida Governor Richard Scott; and Broward County Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie.
Trauma physicians from the three hospitals, where the wounded were treated, provided factual updates, but without names or any significant detail as to the injuries. All three appeared to be exhausted.
Several dozen people formed a safety net of compassion and support. Otherwise, the visual would have been the generic person of authority-at-the-microphone with a non-descript background.
Quickly it became obvious that all speakers had had media training and some background in crisis communication.
Don't Speculate. Don't Promise
Just doing their job, the journalists fired question after question about the male shooter and for specific details about what had transpired.
Time and time again, Sheriff Israel referenced the ongoing investigation to determine exactly what had occurred, the purpose being to bring the shooter to justice. The closest he got to speculating was to allow that a point raised by a journalist was “a possibility.”
At one point he offered to provide certain information later in the day. But, he immediately added that might not happen and it might be the next day, i.e., no promise was made. If he had not said this, the headline is: “County sheriff’s office fails to deliver information, as promised.”
Even if the information wasn’t available the next day, the sheriff’s office would be able to offer an explanation as to why – and to “feed the media” with new developments.
A powerful and prevalent message that was reiterated were the problems of mental illness and new measures for authorities to assist and deal with people who have this illness. For example, people who use social media to telegraph their intentions and problems.
Messaging is not facts: it supercedes facts by a huge margin. Messaging connects with the heart; it resonates with a person’s emotions and values. Messaging is the touchstone for effective communications. Messages are remembered.
Both Governor Scott and Sheriff Israel knew what messages they wanted to convey, and both used simple sentences and words to do so.
Governor Scott – "I’ve talked to the Speaker of the House and to the Attorney General to explore gun control".
Sheriff Israel – "Preventing the deaths of students is more important than budget debates in Washington".
Superintendent Runcie cited confidentiality as the reason he couldn’t answer questions some questions. In a factual manner, he was neither confrontational nor apologetic.
Aside from what appeared to be a recent trip to the barbershop, there was nothing new with President Trump and what he had to say. Rather, his comments were merely an expanded version of his tweet offering “prayers and condolences.” Absent was any reference to the political implications of this and other shootings could have for gun control policy.
In his negative critique of Trump, NBC’s “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd reminded us of another imperative of today’s media world: it’s 24/7. As Todd said dismissively, Trump’s brief comments belonged soon after it happened, not eight hours later when people were looking for substance.
About the Writer
Ronald Kustra is president of Legacy Public Affairs. It is a St. Albert, AB, boutique agency specializing in reputation, issues management, government relations, media profile and speech writing. His career includes 32 years as Assistant Executive Director [Public Affairs] with the Alberta Medical Association; an assistant to a Manitoba cabinet minister; and a journalist with the Winnipeg Free Press and Winnipeg Tribune with five years covering politics. The International Association of Business Communicators has honoured Kustra as a Master Communicator.