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Media Relations When Tragedy Strikes

By on Monday, August 30, 2010

I have to admit, I didn’t set out to develop an expertise in media relations for organizations working with trauma survivors. Missing and exploited child issues, domestic violence, wounded warrior mental health, veteran disability issues, suicide, and the traumatic bereavement of military families are not cheery topics. And I have worked on all of them. And continue to work on many of them.

But the reality is that if no one knows about the nonprofit organizations that serve these populations, survivors will not find them, donors will not support them, and these resources will not exist for trauma survivors. So having good public relations support in place – that supports trauma survivors and facilitates engagement with the media – is critical.

Conversations in Public Relations recently interviewed me about my work with TAPS, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, which helps families who lose loved ones who serve in the military. Here’s my interview discussing some of the challenging situations that come up and what it was like during the Fort Hood tragedy:

I know unfortunately, in an all too personal way, the very difficult decisions that often face surviving families when it comes to sharing their stories and the crush of media and public attention that can invade their private space. I’m a military survivor myself – my 22-year-old brother, US Army Spc Christopher Neiberger, was killed in action in Baghdad, Iraq in 2007. As a spokesperson and public affairs representative, I often work with surviving families as they think through the implications of sharing their stories.

Ninety-five percent of the journalists I work with are great people who respect surviving families and want to share their stories with dignity. I’ve had journalists say that they want for the family to feel  proud of the story and that they don’t want to betray the trust of the family. They know the family opened themselves up to share, and want for the family to feel like sharing their story was worthwhile.

I may have come across in the video as more closed to media coverage than I truly am. I know a number of surviving families who are open to talking with a reporter in their home, because it often allows them to share items left by their loved one or special mementoes. But I also don’t like to hear a request for an in-home interview within the first 20 seconds of my initial conversation with a reporter. Reporters need to realize that they are working with families – who have often experienced and are living out a trauma in their home – and so sometimes that is a lot to ask.

I’ll be upfront with a reporter and explain that especially with military loss – where families are often notified of their loved one’s death by the arrival uniformed officers arriving on their front stoop – images of the family’s home – especially the outside – are often haunting and traumatizing to families.

It may be appealing to the videographer to photograph the outside of a home so they can do a voiceover, but often families have very legitimate concerns about safety – both emotionally and physically. Widows with children and surviving parents sometimes worry about their homes being identified in the media or singled out. It’s well-known that families of our fallen receive life insurance funds – and some worry they will be targeted for crime or scams.

If a reporter is invited to go to a family’s home, I’ll often talk with him or her about having a conversation (ahead of time, before the camera is rolling) with the family about what is ok to film.

I enjoyed talking with Mary Fletcher from FletcherPrince at the TAPS office. She is very personable and easy to talk with. I think she was worried she might traumatize me by asking me about my brother, and even asked if it was alright to bring it up. We talked about him and my own experience with loss and media relations at the interview, although that didn’t make the final video cut.

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