The Tragedy in Uvalde, Texas - Forgetting the Importance of Effective Communication
Updated: Jun 2, 2022
The eyes of the world were on Uvalde, Texas, this week, mourning the loss of nineteen Grade 4 students and two teachers. This community will feel the trauma from this heinous act of violence for decades. But rubbing salt into this very raw wound is the ineffective communication approach used by officials following the tragedy.
It takes time for the facts and timelines for a crisis of this scale to unfold. Meanwhile, the public is demanding information and answers. Setting the tempo and tone for sharing public information and the communications approach is critical. This is why the Public Information Officer (PIO) is integral to an agency's successful response.
The PIO bases their approach on the following four actions:
Gathering information from the source (Incident Commander)
Verifying the information to confirm the validity of what you're about to share publicly
Coordinating the release of the information with other agencies and audiences
Disseminating the information to your public using the most appropriate medium(s)
To be effective, the PIO must be in the loop and have a seat at the command table. Without current information from the source, they cannot do their job effectively.
In the case of Uvalde, news conferences or "pressers" have been the medium of choice. Many experienced crisis communicators and PIOs watched these news conferences noting officials did not implement the basic tenets of sharing public information.
When a shattered community is grieving from tragedy, there is a desperate need for timely and accurate communication.
Here are a few observations on the breakdown of effective communications in this case:
Spokespersons must verify the information before releasing it into the public domain. Releasing information that is not confirmed is confusing and leads to misinformation that later requires correcting. What follows is the erosion of trust and credibility in the eyes of your community. When you step onto the podium following a tragic event, you establish yourself as a trusted and credible source of information. Verify information before releasing it and share what you know now without speculating on elements you have yet to confirm.
Be Prepared and respond professionally. Spokespersons need to prepare themselves before going in front of the media. You never want to respond to questions "off the cuff." If you don't know the answer - say so. You are representing your agency or organization. Learn to control your emotions when the media challenge you. A mass school shooting is a highly emotional situation, but you must remain calm and respond professionally.
Know your audience and be inclusive. If your agency supports a community of more than 72% of residents of Hispanic or Latino origin, you must also provide your information in Spanish. If you do not have a Spanish-speaking PIO find a trusted community leader or a translator to help you deliver the updates in the language of your community. People are grieving and not thinking clearly, so remove any language barriers that will impact their ability to receive the information you are sending.
Focus on People, Not Politics. Newsflash: This is not about you or your agency. Your role is to keep your community informed. Remember that people may not remember what you said, but they will remember how you made them feel. Let them know you care by showing empathy about what has happened and focusing on the people most impacted by this tragedy. Put the people over politics.
Don't become the story. The newly revealed timeline of how long officers waited before entering the school has become the primary focus of news agencies. Being defensive about police actions does not bode well for those who lost loved ones. A full investigation will take time. And the public is looking for you to provide information and keep them updated. If you have become the story, then perhaps you need to hand off the daily updates to another agency so you can manage your agency's internal crisis?
There will be many discussions about police actions (or inactions) and gun control across the US. People are looking to place blame. However, this blog post aims to point out the need to be prepared to communicate effectively following a significant event in your community or organization when your residents are relying on you to deliver.
Bless the young lives lost, the families, first responders and the community, as they begin healing and work through this senseless tragedy.
Shawna Bruce is passionate about Risk and Crisis Communications, Emergency Public Information, and Public Engagement. She delivers crisis, PIO, and media training workshops in-person and virtually.