Two months ago I went to Florida to support media relations for the TAPS National Military Suicide Survivor Seminar. It was a time of healing, sharing and comfort for hundreds of people grieving painful losses.
I still remember the first time TAPS held the event in San Diego in 2009. It was the first time the organization devoted an entire weekend program to the needs of military families grieving deaths by suicide. In 2009, the congressionally-mandated Department of Defense Task Force on Prevention of Suicide in the Armed Forces arrived ahead of the event and held a field hearing to listen to families grieving these terrible losses and gather data on how the system could improve and prevent future losses. It was like a huge ball of pain sat in the hotel that weekend with us – the pain of these families was so present that when I called my husband, I said it felt like the walls of the hotel were crying, there was so much pent up sorrow pouring out of these families. My role included prepping families to share with the task force, working with media on-site, and even working with Sesame Street which was creating a video about the experiences of grieving military children. I arrived home to Virginia emotionally wiped out.
Over the years. I have supported dozens of military families grieving deaths by suicide in sharing their stories with the media. And I learned a few lessons that I think are insightful for anyone working in media relations with trauma survivors.
You have to feel it. You can’t do PR for something like this, if you don’t empathize. I had suffered my own loss when my brother died in action in Iraq in 2007, but my experience was very different from the experiences of these families grieving deaths by suicide. My pain was mine, and theirs was theirs. I wouldn’t begin to say I understood how they felt. I knew loss and my brother was killed in action while serving in Iraq with the military, but I didn’t know the stigma and shame that so many of them carried because their losses involved suicide. And I could see how that stigma affected their pain and perspectives.
I was deeply struck by these military families and their pain. It was so palpable. The speakers, workshops and support groups at the events clearly offered them a lot of help. But it was in the quiet moments – when I sat with a family in the art therapy studio, or encountered a young widow smoking outside who was angry at her late husband, or saw a family sob a river of tears over a photo in a slide show – that their sorrow came surging forth, threatening to drown us all.
It would be easy when faced which such emotion and sorrow to shut down. But I don’t think you can antiseptically detach yourself completely from suffering. No matter how thick an emotional barricade you erect – these stories would still get to you. You have to walk alongside them in it, even if you don’t fully understand it. That doesn’t mean you have to sob with them, or spill your own sorrows out, but walking alongside them to support their stories means you will listen, understand and honor their stories by seeking the right venues to share them (or protect them from intrusion when it’s not desired). Being entrusted with a story of sorrow and pain is a unique trust.
Give people options that always give them control. So often with trauma, people are living with a horrible feeling of lost control – often something happened to them, or to people they care about, that they had no control over personally. It was not their choice for a loved one to die in a terrible way. This is incredibly disorienting for the survivors left behind to grieve.
In talking with families about sharing a painful story that involves a death by suicide publicly, I try to give people a sense of control. We talk about realistic options, goals in sharing (what do they want to see happen as a result of sharing publicly), and making choices that help them feel comfortable and contribute to dialogue, if that is what they want to do. Families can talk to press without limits, can talk to press with some limits, can talk only to one reporter, can talk through intermediaries, or can avoid talking at all. Even in what many public relations experts would call a no-win situation, there are always choices that can be made by families. And choices give people back a sense of control, who may feel that so much in their lives is beyond their control.
But media attention by default, involves a loss of control. Because the story is entrusted to a reporter who will interpret it, write it, probe it, and position it. It is important for these families to understand that. And once a story is in the public eye there is even less control. The story can be criticized, dissected and broadcast. This is especially hard for people who are already dealing with a feeling that life is out of control in their personal lives because of a tragedy.
You have to provide support. While the media can provide a powerful lens that focuses public opinion, it can also hurt people. The responsible approach helps families think ahead of time about what they should consider before going public. They should consider whether other relatives know about the nature of the loss and how they will react. They should weigh how going public will affect other family members or children and their healing. And they should evaluate their own personal health and strength and how that might be impacted by additional stress.
It is always their story, and it’s important to emphasize that to people who feel like they have lost some control in their lives. Talking to a reporter, especially about personal matters, is sometimes uncomfortable and nearly always unfamiliar to people who have suffered trauma. It can help to practice and also to humanize the reporter and talk about how an interview is typically conducted.
Families often need someone to help them look at their story and consider how to put elements together. The family sees an entire life spread out before them – how do you summarize that in 10 minutes for a talk in a community forum? What do they know? Are there elements that relate to others? Do they know prevention information to share? Is the goal to inform others about mental health care and prevent other deaths by suicide? Can the story be told in a way that is understood and clear? Can they handle the fact that an element of the public may post hurtful comments ore negative comments about their loved one if the story appears online, or that the story will be online for the rest of their lives?
And during an interview – it’s important for survivors of trauma to feel comfortable and supported. That might mean having a grief counselor in an interview with them, or a close friend for support. It could mean doing an interview in a location away from home, or in their home, depending on their comfort zone.
You have to educate yourself. There is evidence that certain types of reporting about suicide can contribute to contagion, or copycat deaths. Research indicates that contagion is more likely if reporting glorifies the manner of death, shares intimate details from the scene of the death or about the manner of the death by suicide, or presents suicide as inevitable, and as if there is no hope of not completing suicide. Even the language we use – when we say commit suicide, we are passing judgment on the manner of the death – contributes to stigma about suicide. It’s important for public relations professionals working with survivors of suicide to educate themselves on the research and best practices. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has issued a great resource with recommendations for reporting about suicide.
You have to believe that walking in pain ultimately leads to something better. I don’t think you can work with trauma survivors doing media relations if you do not believe that the result of sharing a story that includes pain and sorrow can lead to something better – whether that is better understanding, improved legislation, more willingness on the part of the public to seek mental healthcare, etc. You have to believe there is a greater purpose that can come from sharing. You also need to take care of yourself if you are walking alongside people who have suffered in sharing their stories. Sometimes that belief in an effort leading to something better can be all-consuming. It’s important to take care of yourself so you don’t burn out.
Note: Photo courtesy of Harold Lloyd, who was kind enough to offer it through a Creative Commons license. Source available here.
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 for publications and websites. She 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.