Any Given Day: How Crisis Communications Training Helped in the Most Heartbreaking Scenario
Friday, February 15, 2008: My phone rings for what feels like the tenth time in as many minutes. In other words, it feels like any given day in the life of a public information specialist for the Clark County School District, headquartered in Las Vegas.
“Michael, I need you to drop everything right this second and come down to my school as quickly as you can.”
Not the most calming start to a conversation, but it certainly grabbed my attention.
The voice, belonging to an assistant principal I’ve come to know professionally, is clearly shaken.
I instantly know something is amiss. When you work with several hundred school administrators, you become accustomed to their normal demeanor – confident, in control, authoritative.
I feel my heart start to beat faster. This is no drill.
“One of my students was just shot by another student, right outside of school. They took him to the hospital. It doesn’t look good, Michael.”
With that last line, his voice cracks. He’s strong, but he’s just been blindsided by the hardest hit he’s ever received in his 15 years as an educator.
Breaking a stunned silence that feels like an eternity, but couldn’t have lasted more than a second or two, I tell the assistant principal I can be on-site within 20 minutes. I ask if there is anything else I need to know.
“His mom is a teacher. She doesn’t know yet. We’re trying to get hold of her.”
My heart is racing; news travels fast between schools. People will know the name of the student who was shot. Once the name goes public, all bets are off.
God help me, I don’t want this young man’s mother finding out via a rumor, or worse yet, a breaking news report.
I assure the assistant principal as best I can.
“Okay, let me brief my team and I’ll be right there,” I say to him. “Please refer all news media inquiries to our office. You focus on your kids and your staff.”
The approach, regardless of the severity of the situation, is a standard operating procedure for the communications office. A school dealing with a crisis needs to focus on the task at hand, not an onslaught of phone calls from reporters.
In a crisis, you want to avoid inconsistent responses from overwhelmed school staff, many of whom are dealing with feelings of fear, loss and confusion. You also don’t want to jeopardize the ongoing investigation. As a public entity, you want to be transparent with your community.
However, it’s imperative to ensure the accuracy of the information you share. Your responsibility is disseminating public information, not fueling public rumors.
Within minutes I brief the superintendent’s office, the school board and my team. This is the second shooting incident involving students in eight weeks. Last time, there were no fatalities when someone fired six shots into a crowded school bus stop, but it still made national news.
My community is on edge.
For the next few hours, much of the public mindset will not be about logic, it will be about emotion.
The community won’t remember safety statistics or numerous studies showing that schools are among the safest places to send our children. Any act of violence involving kids is going to cause panic.
Out of the fear, people will seek guidance. They will want someone who is willing to stand with them, grieve with them and lead them forward. They will remember how your organization and its leaders made them feel in their darkest hours.
My supervisor is out of the office. She was also away eight weeks prior, during the bus stop shooting. Once again, I am responsible for the Clark County School District Communications Office during an incident involving gun violence. I’m also only 25 years old and barely old enough to rent a car. This is the definition of trial by fire.
But I’m not unprepared for this moment. Over the past year, I actively participated in a number of crisis response trainings, seminars and drills. These efforts were conducted in cooperation with crisis responders from the federal, state, county and local levels. Members of law enforcement, emergency response teams, firefighters, medics, engineers, transportation coordinators and more participate, with each session featuring anywhere from 15-45 people and lasting upwards of 12 hours. These trainings are extensive and they are intense.
We look at scores of crisis situations form multiple angles. We study what’s worked, and what hasn’t. Crisis response isn’t paint-by-numbers, but there are time-tested tactics and approaches that have been proven to work. You hope you don’t ever have to use them. But you know, on any given day, you might not have a choice.
For me, any given day is today.
Before I leave my office, I brief my team, providing detailed instructions, guidance on talking points and messaging, and a quick reminder about procedures. I grab the keys to a district vehicle and begin to plan out my next steps when I arrive at the school. The clock is already ticking and I do not have time to spare.
Working for a large school district, crises are inevitable. Incidents involving staff and students can be mentally and emotionally taxing. You’re dealing with kids, and the situations you encounter can be heartbreaking. You’re trying to bring clarity to confusion, and somewhere in the midst of the crisis is someone who is having the worst day of his or her life.
Traveling to the school, I somehow catch every traffic light and arrive within 20 minutes of my initial phone call with the assistant principal. As I approach the scene, I am met by controlled chaos.
Law enforcement has already established a series of checkpoints through which I must pass. A growing crowd is gathering, and news media is starting to show up on the scene. Children are crying and hugging. Police are taking statements. Parents are desperately trying to work their way closer to the school and reach their children.
Training taught me to survey the scene quickly and note anything that could be useful: locations, access points, as well as any notes or directions I’ll want to pass along to the superintendent and district leadership before they arrive. My philosophy is that surprises are best reserved for birthday parties; I don’t want my leaders surprised by anything they encounter when they arrive.
Upon meeting the assistant principal, police representatives and other members of school administration, we immediately separate fact from rumor, identify roles and key contacts, and put together essential background information such as a timeline, key points, next steps, contact information for the public and other essential components. The preparation of running through dozens of similar scenarios makes everything feel instinctual.
We affirm a few ground rules: No information is shared publicly unless the command center director is aware and authorizes the release of said information, and as training taught me, speak in soundbites – keep to the facts; get to the point and be concise; clarify as needed. There are no secrets in this room; we share what we hear and what we know. We are bound by confidentiality. You need to pay attention, and you need to be flexible. If you’re not prepared to pivot as the situation demands, you’re going to be a hindrance to response efforts.
Working with templates we already established, I draft messaging to post on the school district website and share via social media. Our preparation pays dividends as we’re able to share information accurately and efficiently in a matter of minutes.
We schedule a press conference for later that day, with the exact time yet to be determined. While it will be days before we have more answers, it’s important that our community see and hear from its leaders. We’re already in contact with the mayor’s office, as well as the governor’s office.
All of this planning and action transpires quickly. We’re not even an hour removed from the shooting.
With our strategic plan in motion, we establish a news media staging area. This helps us save time by having media in one concentrated location, and allows us to begin prepare for our news conference. Just like us, reporters have a responsibility to the public. We’ll need each other in the coming hours to do our jobs, and it’s important we work together to serve our shared community.
I leave the command center, along with a school police information officer with whom I’ve spent a lot of time since joining the district. As the lieutenant and I make our way through the school parking lot, we hear news helicopters overhead. They’re circling the scene and broadcasting live. All of this feels like something out of a movie.
The lieutenant’s phone rings and he answers. Suddenly, he stops walking and listens intently. I suspect it’s an update on the student’s condition. I look for any indication on the lieutenant’s face that might tell me if we have some positive news for a change. For a split-second, I think I see the slightest signs of relief in his eyes.
In a flash, it’s gone.
The lieutenant hangs up the phone and tells me they have suspects in custody and it’s a group of several teenagers. They attend the same school as the victim. No one involved in this incident is older than 18 years of age.
He pauses for second and then tells me that our victim, a freshman member of the football team and an honors student, has passed away. He’s only 15 years old.
The lieutenant bows his head slightly, clears his throat, and we keep walking. Neither of us says a word. Neither of us has to. I snap back to my training and place a few phone calls to update the necessary school district personnel. I repeat the same devastating message several times. When I finish, there is silence once again as we continue on our journey.
In order to get to our destination, roughly a quarter-mile from the crisis response center, we pass the location of the shooting. As we approach, there’s no doubt as to what’s transpired. Despite the deafening noise or sirens, helicopters and distant crying, it is the stillness of this moment that stands out the most.
Backpacks left in place where they fell, cars with doors left open – a reminder of the presence of those who stopped to help in the immediate aftermath of the incident. There is blood covering the sidewalk. There are dropped books and shattered lives. It’s surreal and everything is unmoved; hauntingly frozen in time.
Training and roleplaying in drills helps you channel your energy in a constructive manner. But make no mistake, you’re never completely removed from the human impact of a crisis – it’s all around you. You need to be aware of how others may react to different situations in order to provide the proper counsel. Your actions do not exist in a vacuum.
Eventually we escort reporters to a designated area of the parking lot where we will provide them with updates. This area is roped-off, not accessible to the general public, and positioned as far as logistically possible from the crime scene.
We schedule a news conference for 4 p.m., organize the information we can share at the news conference, and outline our next steps. Already my team and I are working to schedule town hall meetings and ensuring that students and families are aware of the resources, including counseling services, available to them. A plan for the next two weeks and beyond is beginning to take shape. These details, as much as anything we do this day, will influence how our community responds.
The next several hours include monitoring news services, fine tuning a media relations plan for the next few days, ensuring the school has the support it needs, and providing school district leadership with the tools they need to help lead the community forward and (eventually) begin the healing process.
The press conference includes our superintendent and school board president, the sheriff and the mayor. All the participants answer questions as best they can, trying to make sense of a senseless situation. The superintendent relies on the information we compile, and the media training we provide for top officials and all administrators in the school district. Even under the most trying of circumstances, our due diligence is proving its value.
Hours later, when I leave the school, the sky is dark and the streets are empty – save for a handful of police cars. Media has departed, as have all the participants of a candlelight vigil. The hardest, most heartbreaking day of my career is finally over. It will take considerable time for my community to heal.
Epilogue: Moving Forward with the Lessons We Learned
In the coming days, weeks and months, the Las Vegas community came together to discuss school safety, gun violence and how to prevent incidents like this from happening in the future. We strengthened our relationship with law enforcement, improved public trust and perception, and launched a number of initiatives that directly contributed to student safety.
We learned the hard way that our response plan was effective, and we would continue to fine tune that plan, together, with first responders. Later, our crisis communication efforts that day were recognized by the Public Relations Society of America and would serve as an example for other school districts throughout the nation.
Today, schools remain one of the safest places you can send your child, and that’s something important to remember in a world where every violent incident is broadcast or streamed into our lives in a seemingly endless news cycle. School districts spend countless hours engaged in violence prevention initiatives and regularly fine tune crisis response strategies. These strategies are often developed in cooperation with first responders and local municipalities on a level that goes above and beyond any other location you and your child might visit.
If there’s one thing I hope readers pull from this story, it’s an understanding that a crisis doesn’t care if you’re ready or not. It doesn’t care if the senior person on your team is away from your company or organization. On any given day, a crisis can, and will, happen. It will not be at your convenience. Right or wrong, you will be judged by your response.
Being prepared for a crisis takes time and effort. It often includes drills, media training and message development, fostering relationships with emergency contacts, and an audit of the tools at your disposal, as well as an honest appraisal of your organization’s strengths and weaknesses. You might not always like what you discover, but you don’t want to find out while a crisis is taking place.
The extensive training I received prior to this incident provided me with an understanding of the best practices behind developing an effective crisis response strategy and helped me develop the proper mindset when responding to a crisis. I encourage other communications professionals to actively seek out similar training opportunities. I’m sure they hope to never have to use their training, but on any given day they might have to.
As catastrophic as the situation was that winter day, I am proud of the way we responded to tragedy. While nothing can ever erase the hurt that was felt by so many, I like to think our response helped provide a sense of stability for the community, and fostered a sense of direction and unity.
I will consider myself exceptionally fortunate if I never encounter another tragedy like the one we experienced in Las Vegas that day. For now I take comfort in knowing my experience and training can help my clients and colleagues navigate whatever comes our way, on any given day.
Michael Rodriguez is a Senior Associate in Ceisler Media's Harrisburg Office.