ANALYSIS: Profile - PR man shines in face of school tragedy. Times of crisis often prove the mettle of those involved. John Frank tells of how Rick Kaufman, head PR person in the 1999 Columbine, CO high school tragedy, went beyond the call of duty

Rick Kaufman knew he wanted to be a PR man from the time he was a student at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point. When he graduated in 1984, he took a newspaper reporting job because a professor had told him it was the best way to develop the writing skills he would need in PR.

Rick Kaufman knew he wanted to be a PR man from the time he was a student at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point. When he graduated in 1984, he took a newspaper reporting job because a professor had told him it was the best way to develop the writing skills he would need in PR.

Rick Kaufman knew he wanted to be a PR man from the time he was a student at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point. When he graduated in 1984, he took a newspaper reporting job because a professor had told him it was the best way to develop the writing skills he would need in PR.

Once his PR career got underway, Kaufman, 38, quickly discovered he enjoyed the education field. He handled PR for two Wisconsin school districts and the state's education department before taking on the most challenging job of his career.

Kaufman found himself at the center of the Columbine crisis as executive director, public engagement and communications services, for the Jefferson County Public Schools in Golden, CO. The school leapt into the national spotlight on April 20, 1999, the day two students showed up and killed 12 fellow students and a faculty member, then wounded two dozen others before taking their own lives.



Grace under pressure

Kaufman can still recall hearing the first reports of the shootings after returning to his office that morning from a district breakfast. He immediately headed for the high school with an assistant superintendent, still not sure what was happening, but knowing he should be on the scene for the inevitable crush of media.

'We were in for something that none of us could ever have imagined,' Kaufman recalls. Hundreds of students were streaming from the school in utter confusion while police and the media surrounded the area.

Kaufman, a former emergency medical technician, began helping paramedics get a wounded student into a rescue vehicle and then searched for the student's ID, knowing he'd have to inform the parents. Fighting off the initial shock, Kaufman went on to be the district's PR point man for the crisis and immediately pulled together a makeshift team to add to his staff of two full-time PR people, a researcher, a video production person and two assistants.

'He is a real collaborator and team player,' says Marilyn Saltzman, communications services manager for the district. 'It's a real tribute to Rick that he was able to get all those colleagues to drop everything and come to help.'

Kaufman initially brought in three outside PR volunteers and then began rotating staff by putting in fresh people as the media circus continued.

He knew his biggest enemy was the misinformation hitting the airwaves after the shootings. 'In a crisis situation, you can never get ahead of it,' he says.

Kaufman decided to hold two press conferences a day to get out any available information. A daily fact sheet was given to media and staff at 10am.

He and the district superintendent became the two main spokespeople.

Fielding 1,500 media calls a day from more than 700 media outlets for about three weeks, Kaufman said he resolved to only deal with media if doing so met a specific criterion: 'Does it help us heal, does it help us return to normal?'

Kaufman routinely debriefed his PR team at 2am, formulating talking points for later that day. 'Everyone knew what the messages were and we stuck to those messages,' he says.

However, while Kaufman tried to keep the school district on message, the local sheriff was something of a loose cannon, allowing Time magazine to view videotapes made by the two student-killers and even posed for pictures with their weapons (PRWeek, April 17, 2000). 'We stepped on the sheriff's department's toes and they stepped on ours,' Kaufman admits.

But he resisted pressure for school officials to become more vocal. 'That truly wouldn't help us,' he says.

The PR community was so impressed with Kaufman's handling of the tragedy and the subsequent media frenzy, they nominated him for the 2000 PRSA PR professional of the year award, which he won this fall.

'It was an exceptional time and he was an exceptional person to meet the challenge,' says Rich Bagin, executive director of the National School Public Relations Association and one of the people who nominated Kaufman.

Pat Jackson, whose New Hampshire PR firm, Jackson Jackson & Wagner, specializes in working with school districts, agrees: 'He's done a terrific job of pulling together a community that was split by the media.'

Jackson credits Kaufman for keeping top district officials in touch with community leaders, for setting up a system to maintain communications with affected families and for work on one-year anniversary events that focused on healing. 'Those were all events he used to pull the community back together,' Jackson says.

Jackson credits Kaufman for knowing when to put the district superintendent forward to the press. Kaufman fielded initial questions himself, and then brought in the superintendent only when real details of the crisis became available.



Columbine and Kaufman: a year later

The district today remains embroiled in lawsuits. Victims' families have filed nine wrongful death and negligence suits. But Kaufman says despite the suits, he's tried to maintain communications with affected parents.

He had been working on community outreach efforts before the shootings and continues to do so today. Regular informational meetings are held for various audiences such as senior citizens, Saltzman says.

At the same time, Kaufman has increased internal communications efforts.

Media training sessions have been held for administrators, principals and even secretaries. An e-mail newsletter goes to principals and supervisors every Friday updating them on key issues facing the district.

School employees want to hear what's happening from their immediate superiors and the newsletter gives those individuals the information they need, explains Saltzman.

Today, Kaufman has tried to get his life, and job, back to normal. He moved his family to Colorado in August 1999 - at the time of the shootings, they were still living in Wisconsin.

He's had time to work on other communications initiatives. This past summer, he even took his first vacation since moving to Colorado. Some might want to leave a job that involved such trauma, but Kaufman has promised Columbine's principal that he'll stay on as long as the principal does.

Kaufman isn't comfortable in the spotlight Columbine brought him, preferring to work behind the scenes. Of the PRSA award, he says, 'to receive the award for such a tragedy, it's hard for me to understand that.' Yet through it all, he remains committed to his job. 'My work is not done,' he says.

Reflecting on the challenge of helping others cope with the tragedy, he adds: 'I don't know if it will ever be done.'



RICK KAUFMAN: executive director, public engagement and communications services, Jefferson County Public Schools, Golden, CO

1984-1986: Reporter, Shawano Leader (WI)

1986: Reporter, Waukesha County Freeman (WI)

1986-1989: Director of public relations, Wisconsin Dells Visitors and Convention Bureau

1989-1997: Community information coordinator, Sheboygan Area School District (WI)

1997-1998: Special consultant, Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction

1998: Director of public information, Racine Unified School District (WI)

1998-present: Executive director, public engagement and communications services, Jefferson County Public Schools.





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