Crisis experts preach preparedness. They tell clients to assess risks, develop plans, run drills. Yet a tragedy as profound as last year’s mass murder at Columbine High School renders even the most comprehensive plan inadequate.
Crisis experts preach preparedness. They tell clients to assess
risks, develop plans, run drills. Yet a tragedy as profound as last
year’s mass murder at Columbine High School renders even the most
comprehensive plan inadequate.
Columbine threw together dozens of organizations that serve the
sprawling neighborhoods of suburban Denver. As a discussion with those
involved proves, some agencies and systems were clearly better prepared
Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris fired their first shots at 11:20 on the
morning of April 20. Steve Davis, a cop who was and still is the
Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office’s only public information officer
(PIO), became chief spokesperson. He arrived at 11:45. Some reporters
beat him to the school.
’One of our live trucks got there before the yellow tape went up and we
couldn’t get to it for hours,’ recalls Diane Mulligan, news director for
Denver’s ABC affiliate, KMGH. Davis set up a media staging area and
began hourly press conferences. ’We were close enough to be able to talk
to the students as they came out,’ says CNN national correspondent Tony
Some would argue that the cameras strayed too close to the action. The
two gunmen could have watched SWAT team movements and student
evacuations broadcast live on TV. News helicopters blew dust into
officers’ eyes and drowned out their voices, only adding to the
As the media’s insatiable appetite for news continued, spokespeople from
the other affected agencies coordinated with Davis and, within a week,
had set up a unified command center at a public library. The school’s PR
staff wouldn’t move back into their own offices for nearly two months,
says Marilyn Saltzman, spokesperson for Jefferson County Public
Once the immediate crisis passed, blame was thrust at the school and the
two teens’ parents for not heeding warning signs. Law enforcement
agencies faced criticism for lacking organization, using incompatible
radio frequencies and not moving into the school sooner.
Sheriff John Stone gained a reputation ’as a maverick commander who
talks first and then thinks,’ says Kristen Clark, a Denver PR consultant
who published a media relations workbook after Columbine. Reporters
quickly learned to rely on Davis for accurate information after Stone
erroneously placed the death count at 25.
Prior to the shooting, the Emergency Services Public Information
Officers of Colorado (ESPIOC) had already begun developing a credo and
training guide for media, law enforcement and prosecutors, says the
organization’s VP Ramona Robinson, PIO for the Lakewood Police.
Columbine added emphasis to guidelines on live shots and media aircraft
safety. Davis agrees airspace should have been restricted much
Thanks to monthly meetings of ESPIOC, local police, fire, EMS and
hospital spokespeople already knew each other and local reporters. And
while school PR pros can’t join the group, more than 20 volunteers from
various school-related PR associations and the PRSA pitched in to help
them, Saltzman says. Now, school spokespeople meet quarterly with
police, fire and EMS communicators.
Columbine also encouraged ESPIOC to develop a better crisis plan, says
Sara Spaulding, public affairs director for Swedish Medical Center.
Denver’s emergency plan wasn’t implemented during the shooting because
it happened in the suburbs, and officials at the scene didn’t know which
hospitals would treat students. Four victims went to Swedish, and ESPIOC
colleagues tried calling Spaulding to share information. ’I couldn’t be
sure they were who they said they were,’ she notes, so her staff had no
choice but to withhold facts. Using a new pager code, ESPIOC members can
now identify each other.
From a law enforcement perspective, Columbine convinced many tactical
planners to bring PIOs into the fold, says Lt. Col. Ronnie Jones of the
Louisiana State Police, who teaches police/media relations courses
across the country. ’(PIOs) have to be part of the process on the front
end,’ he says.
Columbine also prompted a discourse on how communication should be
prioritized during school crises. ’The key audiences are the victims and
their families, the teachers and other staff members, the students, and
then maybe only after that do you get to the news media,’ advises Mark
Holoweiko, president of Michigan’s Stony Point Communications, which has
developed a crisis communication template for schools. The press ranks
low among police priorities as well, and rightly so, say crisis
PR pros doubt spokespeople could have influenced the media’s portrayal
of the shooters, who got the attention and dark immortality they
’The sheriff’s office PIO did an excellent job of just giving the
facts,’ says Kyla Thompson, who works pro bono through Denver’s
Barnhart/CMI to counsel the victims’ families on media relations. The
sheriff himself, however, let a Time magazine reporter view videotapes
Harris and Klebold recorded before the shooting. Stone even posed for a
photograph with the killers’ weapons, which ’just glamorized it to a
whole segment of disenfranchised teens,’ Thompson asserts.
The sheriff’s department has drawn scathing criticism from victims’
Thompson says parents often learn more about the case on the news than
from investigators. Davis says the department’s victims’ assistance
division assigned individual case workers to each family but admits some
details should have been handled differently.
Any communicator who has worked a crisis of nationwide interest knows
national reporters often cause the biggest PR headaches. ’The seduction
of the national media is what is dangerous,’ Thompson says. ’They are
very charming and want to be your friend. And if you are not cynical,
you fall for that friendship.’ She adds that tragedies also turn victims
into instant celebrities, which can make the situation even more
difficult for them emotionally.
Davis’ voice mail and pager still fill up with every new twist in the
case or tangentially related crime. The victims’ families, the students
and the community have had to do their grieving in public. For the first
day of the fall semester, parents and neighbors formed a human chain
around the school to welcome students and shield them from
Columbine drives home the need for preparation, even in the most remote
towns, Clark warns. Networking with other communicators is critical for
agencies with small communication staffs so reinforcements can be called
Even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, communicators can
gain some measure of control, Clark says. ’I think the lesson for PR
people is that it’s OK to take back ownership after a crisis. ... You
can’t stop the media from being there and showing things, but you can
certainly set boundaries.’