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When Grief is Not Private: Coping with Media Attention After a Military Death

By on Wednesday, March 19, 2014

When a Soldier, Airman, Marine, or Sailor dies in service to country, it’s not uncommon to see thousands of people line the streets to witness a funeral procession and honor that military service member’s life. Iconic images of families receiving folded flags at funerals are snapped by the news media and run in our newspapers.

The death of a service member is mourned not just by a family, but by a community, and by a nation. Our language even talks about this type of death differently, using terms like “made the ultimate sacrifice.”  Following the military’s notification of the next of kin, a news release is issued. Funerals are often attended by hundreds of people, local dignitaries, news crews, and even protestors.

In my role at TAPS, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, I talk with surviving families of our fallen military about media relations. Unfortunately, I know the issues involved all too well. My brother, US Army Spc. Christopher Neiberger, was killed in action in Baghdad, Iraq in August 2007. Even with a background in crisis communications, I found it challenging to manage the media attention focused on my family in the immediate days after my 22-year-old brother died.

For the family in the midst of a media maelstrom following the death of their loved one, there is no road map to follow. My personal belief is that families should be able to choose when and if they want to talk to the media, and that grieving families have every right to privacy if they desire it. I’ve learned a few things that might help others supporting bereaved families who are coping with hefty media attention.

Get consensus among the family. Some families see any media intrusion as an offense. Others think media attention may help share the story of their loved one’s life. The family needs to agree on what approach makes sense and what they are comfortable with.

Realize there is no “right” approach. One family might be comfortable sitting in their living room with a reporter and talking for an hour for a feature story. Another might be comfortable with 15-minute phone and in-person interviews, but not on-camera interviews. Some might release photos and provide an interview, but want no media presence at the funeral. Others might permit news crews at the back of the funeral in an unobtrusive spot, but forbid them from being up front. Another family might ask that any reporters calling respect the family’s privacy and refer them to a written statement.

Select a spokesperson. Designate one person to be a point of contact to route all media requests to and to speak on behalf of the family. Ask a trusted family friend to fill this role if no one in the family is comfortable doing this.

Focus on the life lived if you talk with the press. What I hear from many families is the desire to share the life lived by their loved one. The reality is that if the death is of public interest and the family does not talk publicly, does not issue a statement, and does not designate friends to speak on its behalf, the media will still publish a story. Not speaking means losing an opportunity to influence what is said about your loved one in the press.

Talk about how the community can honor the life lost. People in the community often want to help remember the service member and the media can help distribute information about funeral services and memorial funds.

Decide which family photos to share – and realize that once something is online, it’s not private. It’s often helpful to put together a set of 2-3 photos that the family agrees it is comfortable sharing with the media. Tell the media these are the photos you prefer be used. Do not assume that photos on publicly accessible Facebook pages or high school yearbook photos will be ignored by the media if they are available.

Set your own ground rules. If your family is nervous about on-camera interviews, don’t do them. If you don’t want the media to photograph your house, tell them not to do it before they pull up out front. If you want a friend to come with you for emotional support during the interview, bring him or her along.

Look for the reporters that are thoughtful and respectful. Good reporters still exist and will come along. They are sensitive to the high emotions in bereaved families, and will want to create a story that shares your loved one’s life and that you are comfortable with. Any outlet that is excessively aggressive, sends a rude reporter, or makes an unreasonable request, should not be dealt with. Turn down any requests that smack of sensationalism.

Stay away from politics. Occasionally reporters come along who expect for a bereaved family to suddenly be experts on all things political, or the reporter wants to intimate a political dimension into a story about the death of a loved one. Surviving families are often deeply offended by this type of behavior and may feel ambushed by it.

Never say no comment. Even if the family has no intentions of saying anything to the press, ever, it is always a bad idea to say “no comment.” Instead say, “The family is not able to speak with the press right now. We suggest you consult our written statement for information or talk with Joe, our family friend at xyz phone number.”

Consider issuing a statement. Issue a written statement on behalf of the family, if the family is not comfortable speaking with reporters. In the statement, share what they would like to say about their loved one, mention how the community can honor the service member, and ask for the family’s desire for privacy to be respected.

Keep private things – private. If there are details the family would prefer not be known publicly, don’t offer them to the press. Remember that anything said to a reporter is “on the record.”

Be gentle with yourself. The unexpected death of a close loved one is a trauma. Do not overdo it.

Public attention on the family of a fallen service member may continue long after the death. Families may be asked to attend memorial events honoring their loved one months, and even years, after the death has occurred. Families of the fallen may be asked to attend public ceremonies for Veteran’s Day, Memorial Day, or other community holidays.

While many find these invitations a comforting reassurance that their loved one’s service and sacrifice is not forgotten, some also find the public nature of a military death to be very challenging. Give surviving families of our fallen military the support and care they need as they cope with grief in the spotlight.

This article originally appeared in Forum Quarterly, published by the Association for Death Education & Counseling (ADEC), in 2011.

Ami Neiberger-Miller is a public relations strategist and writer. She is the founder of Steppingstone LLC, a virtual and independent public relations practice near Washington, D.C. that provides public relations counsel, social media advice, writing services, and creative design work for publications and websites (portfolio). Ami blogs frequently about media relations, social media, public relations and other issues. She also reviews books on her blog about public relations, nonprofit life, work-family balance and social media practice. Follow her on Twitter @AmazingPRMaven.

Photo is courtesy of the Defense Video & Imagery Distribution System (DVIDs)

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