How Samaritans' comms team works when the media focuses on a suicide

I can only begin to imagine how incredibly difficult and traumatic the last week must have been for the family and friends of Robin Williams who sadly died by suicide in the early hours of Tuesday UK time. Our thoughts remain with them.

Sophie Borromeo: Leading PR work in the wake of Robin Williams' suicide
Sophie Borromeo: Leading PR work in the wake of Robin Williams' suicide

The events of this week have also meant that the spotlight has been firmly on Samaritans, the organisation at which I'm now responsible for communications, whose mission is to reduce the number of deaths by suicide.

This puts us in a unique position, in that we are experts on suicide and are seen as the go-to organisation for the media when covering stories such as these, both for our opinion and response to the news and for specific guidance on what to consider when reporting the story itself. 

The press team and I – along with our CEO Catherine Johnstone and our rota of spokespeople – have been working intensively over the last few days to achieve these two key outcomes: one to make sure anyone who might be affected by the news can easily find details of and access our service, and two to fulfil our ongoing commitment to make sure the media reports suicide, in this instance a very high profile suicide, in a sensitive and responsible manner. 

Robin Williams’ death has been reported in detail by media across the world and continues to attract ongoing attention from all the UK national media (broadcast and print) as well as regional and trade media. 

We had the challenging task of ensuring that the media adhered to our Media Guidelines for Reporting Suicide.

Challenging because of the risks of sensationalist reporting of the incident which we know can lead to imitative behaviour among vulnerable people especially when that person is extremely well-known.

Unfortunately some media organisations did, in our opinion and according to our media guidelines, overstep the mark with their coverage.

We were concerned to see that there were a number of articles detailing unnecessary information about the nature of Robin Williams’ death, so we responded quickly to remind the media that responsible reporting helps to prevent ‘copycat’ behaviour amongst vulnerable groups. 

Our guidance to the media following the death of Robin Williams covered the following:

• Be mindful that celebrity suicides have a higher risk of encouraging copycat behaviour, particularly if the media coverage is extensive and sensationalist.  

• Avoid explicit details of the suicide method e.g. do not state how the individual took their own life or what material was used (ideally, don’t report the method of suicide at all). 

• Do not portray a suicide as quick, effective, painless or easy.

• Where possible sensitively focus on the life achievements of the person and the wastefulness of their death. Try to refer to the wider issues associated with suicide, such as risk factors like alcohol misuse or mental health problems. 

Despite some insensitive reporting from the press which we are reviewing in detail, most media organisations took our advice into consideration by talking about the complexity of suicide and the wider associated issues – mental health and depression - and by adding our contact details to news stories so that anyone affected by coverage of the death could contact us. 

We have currently recorded over 150 Samaritans mentions (this includes interviews with Samaritans spokespeople) and the number is rising. For the most part it’s positive to see the media has talked about the complexities of suicide and the need to break down the stigma around mental health issues, as well as encouraging people to seek help.

The Samaritans press team has been working with the media for over two decades now to help promote sensitive and appropriate reporting of suicide. We publish media guidelines for reporting suicide, which are freely available on our website and we will continue to actively meet and work with media across the board to make sure they are heeded.

From my experience this week, we are making inroads, but on behalf of all those people who need our service now and in the future, the work continues.

Sophie Borromeo was recently appointed director of comms for Samaritans. 

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