Comms after tragedy: Inside Sandy Hook Promise’s mass shooting rapid response protocols

Associate VP of comms Aimee Thunberg details strategy from the moment of the tragedy to three days later.

People hold candles during a candlelight vigil for the victims of the mass shooting in Half Moon Bay. (Photo credit: Getty Images).

NEWTOWN, CT: Few would dispute what gun violence in the U.S. is: a full-fledged public health epidemic. 

The numbers provide the proof: there have already been 41 mass shootings in the first three weeks of the new year, according to data from the Gun Violence Archive

That figure puts 2023 on track to be the deadliest year on record

Last Saturday, 11 people were killed and another nine were injured after a gunman opened fire near a Lunar New Year celebration in Monterey Park, California. The suspect, identified as Huu Can Tran, died the following day of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. 

Less than three days later, the state suffered another mass shooting, with seven people killed in an agricultural area in Half Moon Bay, near San Francisco.

In the aftermath of gun violence, a robust communications plan is imperative, helping to inform the general public, clarify essential details and push for change.

Aimee Thunberg, associate VP of communications at Sandy Hook Promise, took PRWeek inside the organization’s rapid response protocols, from the initial reaction to the days that follow. 

As it unfolds

Thunberg said that Sandy Hook Promise has a cross-functional team designed to manage tragic situations, including COO Dawn Lyons, as well as state and federal policy representatives, a digital expert and a grassroots mobilization engagement representative.  

The team notifies one another through internal platforms once they’re made aware of mass shootings, usually by traditional or social media. 

Sandy Hook Promise subscribes to the Gun Violence Archive’s definition of a mass shooting: the numeric value of four or more shot or killed, not including the shooter.

From there, attention turns to messaging via social media, where Sandy Hook Promise refers to local media sources. The intention is to disseminate the most accurate information.

“NPR’s On [The] Media has a great resource that reminds folks that [national media outlets] always get it wrong in the beginning,” Thunberg says. “Lifting up the first pieces of news you’re seeing isn’t ideal.”

The nonprofit also highlights the Associated Press’ coverage, as the publication abides by “no notoriety” ethics, Thunberg claims.

In a 2019 article on the spread of mass shooters’ names, AP said, in cases in which the crime is carried out seeking publicity, the publication “strives to restrict the mention of the name to the minimum needed to inform the public, while avoiding descriptions that might serve a criminal’s desire for publicity or self-glorification.”

The Sandy Hook Promise team continues to update its social channels as additional details become available, using research and reporting to determine the scope and level of its response. 

“We acknowledge it on social media so that folks are aware. [Regarding] our statements, we allow more time for the story to evolve,” Thunberg says. 

24-48 hours later

Following a thorough evaluation of the situation, Sandy Hook Promise begins releasing statements and offering media availability. The reason behind the timing stems from access to more details. 

Crucial information, such as the gunman’s motive and how they accessed the firearm, doesn’t often come to light until later in the reporting cycle, Thunberg explains.

After the Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde, Texas, last year, Sandy Hook Promise released a formal statement, followed by articles on key warning signs that preceded the attack and other facts about the incident, the latter of which concluded with a call to action. 

“We’re making sure, when we’re raising awareness about gun violence, that we don’t leave people in apathy. We have to give them something to do. Everybody can do something,” Thunberg explains. 

During this timeframe, Sandy Hook Promise contacts its partners in the communities that were affected, offering resources and assistance. The nonprofit also determines, based on internal protocols, whether or not to deploy other tactics, including media advocacy, petitions, website changes or messaging its base via email or SMS. 

“Our level of rapid response is based on an assessment of the news narrative [and the] tragedy's direct connection to our founding [and] mission, our prevention program curriculum and our nonpartisan policy priorities,” Thunberg said via email.

72 hours and beyond

After 72 hours, Sandy Hook Promise prioritizes following up and spotlighting relevant content. More than a week later, for example, it could provide information about how a specific policy could have averted a mass shooting.

“We would issue additional statements as needed about those pieces of the story, pieces of the puzzle that could have prevented it,” Thunberg says. 

On Tuesday, Sandy Hook Promise published a statement applauding the Senate for introducing two bills that would help to curb mass shootings: limiting access to assault weapons and raising the age limit to purchase assault weapons. 

“[During this stage,] we’re helping audiences think more about proactive prevention, as opposed to, when the headlines fade, not talking about it anymore,” Thunberg says. 

In a release three days after the Buffalo mass shooting in May 2022, the organization listed extreme protection risk orders, assault weapon and high-capacity magazine limits and expanded background checks as “evidence-based policies that help prevent mass murder like what happened in Buffalo.”

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