ANALYSIS: Crisis PR - Columbine: PR pros share what it taught. The tragedy at Columbine one year ago thrust dozens of organizations into a media firestorm, and some of them were much better prepared for the crisis than others. Sherri Deatherage Green anal

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.

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

than others.

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


Dust settles

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.

Seductive reporters

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

in quickly.

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.’

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