Dealing with the Media Before, During, and After a Critical Incident

Published November 1, 2000

Dealing with the print and broadcast media after a school-related critical incident can be very challenging. The difficulty can be eased, however, by developing specific media protocols and briefing your superintendent and staff about those protocols.

Whenever possible, a public information officer (PIO) should be designated by your district’s central administration. It is usually money well-spent to hire a former journalist to fill such a position. The following recommendations should be used as a guide for administrators as they prepare to interview and hire or appoint a PIO.

Pre-incident Media Preparation

  • The best PIO will be someone who has formerly worked with the local media and therefore knows the local editors and broadcast journalists.
  • The PIO must be briefed on your school district’s policy and any local regulations concerning the media’s access to public premises.
  • The PIO should discuss his or her role with your superintendent and the school district attorney.
  • All school staff should understand the role and function of the PIO. If appropriate, all school personnel should be instructed to direct any media requests for interviews or information to the PIO.
  • The PIO should be a formal member of the school’s critical incident response team (CIRT) and should be certified in Critical Incident Stress Management.
  • The PIO should be involved in all emergency practice drills and should have a strong familiarity with your community’s first responder personnel: fire, police, emergency medical personnel, local emergency room personnel, HAZMAT teams, etc.
  • The PIO should be familiar with all aspects of your school system, including staff and student demographics, chain of command, school safety and critical incident protocols, prior history of critical incidents, floor plans and fenestration, and entry and access routes for each campus.
  • The PIO should work with your principal and safe school coordinator to write pre-designed, incident-specific form announcements that may be read to the media over the phone. Examples of incident-specific announcements might include sudden death of faculty or staff, suicide, homicide, abductions, natural disasters, HAZMAT spills, and bomb threats.
  • One room at each campus should be designated as a media room where journalists may be invited to conduct interviews when appropriate. This room should be at the periphery of the school building and not in proximity to a pre-designated command post.

During the Incident Media Interactions

  • Alert the PIO and your CIRT as soon as an incident has occurred. Get as many verified incident details to the PIO as soon as possible.
  • The PIO should assure the media that incident information will be made available to them as soon as it is verified. It is normally not a good idea to tell the media they cannot have access to information.
  • Under no circumstances should school staff or students speak with the media. All media interactions should be handled by one point of contact: the PIO.
  • Prepare the media room in case the PIO, in consultation with the principal and superintendent, decides to invite the media into the school.
  • Prepare your school premises as specified in your school safety plan for one point of entry and exit. Position a staff member to block unauthorized entry onto the campus. Unless otherwise specified, no media should be allowed to enter school grounds.
  • Prepare incident-specific media statements once incident facts have been verified. The PIO should be responsible for the delivery of such statements.
  • Never allow any member of the media to be present during the incident response, crime scene investigations, defusings, or debriefings.

Post-incident Media Interactions

  • The PIO can assure the media that progress reports will be made available as post-incident facts are verified.
  • If appropriate, the PIO may meet with the media to discuss how incident coverage was handled and what improvements can be made.
  • Keep in mind that certain incidents exhibit a high correlation between contagion and media exposure. Research has documented, for example, a connection between media coverage of suicide and an increase in suicide attempts. Great care should be taken in handling the media with respect to any incident that involves suicide or other youth violence.

Robert Macy is director of community services for the Trauma Center in Boston. He has 20 years’ experience in clinical interventions and academic research in behavioral health, crisis intervention, and traumatic incident management. He can be reached at [email protected] or 800/634-2016.