Setting a new standard for sensitivity for communicating amid a crisis

When our work touches on tragedy, our efforts are best geared toward the healing process. Anything else risks heading down a dark path toward exploitation and is better put off until another time.

Years ago, I rebuked a public relations adviser for pitching a story on the back of the 2007 mass homicide at Virginia Tech. I was a reporter at Investor’s Business Daily covering wireless technology companies, and the PR consultant was pitching a story about his client’s campus messaging service that could have lessened the carnage. I considered the pitch inappropriate in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, and I told him so.

However, within days, several publications wrote articles covering the same topic and same technology. He apparently landed story success. Why them and not me?

For reporters and the public relations industry that works to connect the media with sources and ideas, much of our job rests on making judgments. One of the most critical is avoiding exploitation in a time of tragedy. And, unfortunately, it is a question that will likely confront almost everyone at some point in his or her PR career, especially given the seemingly inexorable rise of both foreign and domestic crises.

The latest example is the mass shooting in San Bernardino, California. Within days of the tragedy, stories began appearing featuring commentary from workplace safety and crisis consultants whose businesses stand to benefit from press exposure. Perhaps those stories originated from PR consultants or just arose naturally during editorial meetings. Either way, the stories didn’t get to the public without people making judgments about newsworthiness and how to handle them in a sensitive manner.

Thinking back on that day long ago, I was clearly not the right person for a pitch on a text messaging service. I wrote about companies in a position to grow from market trends and innovations. What made it seem worse was that the PR adviser took the tone many so often do: wanting to make it seem like they are doing reporters a favor by bringing an untold story or a fresh perspective. Wringing a 12-paragraph story from tragedy was not doing me a favor and seemed devoid of empathy for the victims.

For publications with a broader ambit, there was a valid story in how a simple tool like text messaging can save lives. That approach shows a degree of empathy with a society shocked by the violence and searching for security.

In a way, writing this column is taking a risk. People can say that it is an exercise in self-promotion. But, in my judgment, it is part of a conversation that is worth having if the PR industry wants to hew to professional standards.

While judgments can differ and reasonable people can disagree, there are certain standards that should be immutable in a human tragedy. The most basic is not to exploit. Whether deliberate or inadvertent, there’s no excuse. It may take a deliberate and conscious decision, odd as it may sound, and a real exercise in judgment as well as some difficult conversations with clients, in order to avoid doing so.

Another standard is to act with empathy for those affected by tragedy as well as for the wider public desperate for information and dependent on the media to deliver it. Was the PR adviser calling me after the Virginia Tech shooting showing more empathy for me – the deadline-strapped reporter desperate for a story – or for the victims? If the former, he misjudged.

There is a real need for public discourse when society confronts tragedies, and the industry can play an important role in fostering that discourse. But when our work touches on tragedy, our efforts are best geared toward the healing process. Anything else risks heading down a dark path toward exploitation and is better put off till another time.

Daniel Del’Re is a senior director in the strategic communications segment of global business advisory firm FTI Consulting.

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