Start Thinking About the Unthinkable

Maine shooter

One refrain heard over and over in the wake of the Maine shootings was, “We never thought it would happen here.”

I heard the same thing when I covered Columbine 24 years ago, and it has been uttered after every shooting in every city since then.

But if you are a PR pro or have them working for you, you simply can’t afford to let denial or wishful thinking sabotage your crisis communications plan.

More and more of my clients are seeking crisis scenario media training, and you should, too. In the meantime, here are five critical rules when the unthinkable happens:

1. Be Responsive But Deliberate

The public will want answers immediately, and the media will push you. Never communicate before you’re prepared, but don’t stonewall the media either (see the Uvalde massacre).

2. Coordinate With Authorities

If a crisis involves first responders, always consult with their communicators before issuing a statement or holding a press conference. There will invariably be details that should not be divulged publicly.

3. Empathy First

If somebody has been hurt, always begin your remarks with a statement of sympathy/empathy/support, even if the first reporter question doesn’t directly solicit that. Avoid cliches such as “thoughts and prayers” in favor of something more genuine.

4. Don’t be Afraid of ‘I Don’t Know”

In the immediate aftermath of a crisis (or during an ongoing one) most of your responses to media questions will be, “We don’t know.” Lean into that and never feel pressured to speculate about facts that aren’t yet clear.

5. Stay in Your Lane

Reporters scrambling for quick facts will ask you questions better suited for others (police, fire department, or a mayor). Don’t answer these questions even if you know the answers. Defer instead.

This is only a start, of course. Reach out if your team needs a crisis communications workshop. Waiting for the crisis to happen, and hoping it doesn’t, is a terrible strategy.

Mark Bernheimer

Mark Bernheimer is a former CNN correspondent and the founder of MediaWorks Resource Group, an internationally renowned media training and consulting firm.