Roundtable: Police PIOs share communication strategies in the aftermath of a school shooting
Regardless of where an incident occurs, agencies invariably face inquiries from community members and the media about their preparedness and response
By Police1 Staff
In the unsettling aftermath of a school shooting, law enforcement agencies inevitably encounter inquiries from community members and local media outlets. These queries often surround the agency's readiness to respond to such incidents should they occur within their jurisdiction.
In this roundtable, we've collated firsthand advice and insights from experienced police PIOs about their communication strategies, messaging frameworks, and the protocols they have in place to convey their preparedness, proactive measures and response plans in the face of such tragic incidents. Moreover, we also share best practices for crisis communications should a school shooting occur in your jurisdiction.
Each contributor, armed with years of on-the-ground experience, offers a unique perspective on best practices for communicating with the media. Their collective wisdom provides invaluable guidance for balancing the urgent need for information dissemination, maintaining the integrity of an ongoing investigation, and, above all, ensuring public trust and calmness in the face of a shared crisis.
Crisis communication starts before the crisis
It’s been one year since the heart-breaking loss of 21 innocent lives in Uvalde, Texas. While there were egregious errors in that response, we can best honor the victims by learning from those failures. Unfortunately, when it comes to communication during such tragedies, many police agencies still rely on an outdated tactic: “Say nothing until we know everything.” That strategy only exacerbates the pain, fear and grief of a community. So, what should we have learned from Uvalde and the multitude of other horrific instances of violence in our communities from a crisis communications perspective?
Best-practice crisis management starts with community trust. Work now to foster strong relationships across your communities through open communication and engagement so people will trust you when a crisis occurs. A narrative is framed within the first few minutes of a crisis. Without trust and a good crisis communications plan, your community will turn to others for information – a social media influencer, politician, or TV talking head. Now is the time to put those plans in place and practice them.
Before an active shooter incident:
- Use social media channels to convey your department’s preparedness for an active shooter scenario. Post your protocols, public alert systems and up-to-date information sources.
- Invite media and community influencers to participate in active shooter drills to share your preparedness information with a wider audience.
- Develop a crisis communications plan that includes early messaging – or holding statements – to issue in the early minutes of a crisis when there isn’t a lot of information available.
During an active shooter, communication must be constant:
A one-and-done media briefing or news conference is not enough, particularly during dynamic situations like an active shooter. Delaying the release of information only leads to an information void, which may be filled with incorrect or even malicious information. Crises develop, and new information comes forward. A constant stream of factual information is the only way to help tamp down rumors and ensure your community is getting the most accurate and timely information they need to keep their families and loved ones safe.
During the crisis:
- Prioritize speed and factual information dissemination using every channel possible – social media, traditional media, emergency notification systems and text messaging groups.
- Have a trusted and consistent spokesperson conduct regular updates as new information emerges. Share only verified facts, avoiding speculation or assumptions.
- Address key questions from the community, including concerns about safety, potential impact and recommended actions.
After an active shooter/mass casualty tragedy:
A community will be reeling after such an event. Once the area is secure, take a leadership role in the healing process, connecting professionals with affected families and providing a safe space for people to come together. Consider town hall meetings to discuss the safety protocols in place in your jurisdiction. Have school resource officers meet with PTAs, guidance counselors, and principals. Ongoing communication is crucial to progress the focus from the event itself to your community's recovery and resilience. And the stronger your community connections, the better your chances of identifying potential threats before they become national news.
After the crisis:
- Lead efforts to establish memorial locations and organize events to remember the victims. Arrange local healing circles to address community concerns and facilitate open dialogue.
- Be a visible part of initiatives to combat gun violence, promote mental wellness and address substance abuse issues.
- Don’t forget. Strategic communication can help shape a healing narrative for the future anniversaries of the event, instead of revisiting the trauma.
In light of the communication failures surrounding mass shootings like Uvalde and others, law enforcement must prioritize communication as a key ingredient of active shooter response protocols. Smaller agencies should establish mutual aid agreements and network with other agencies to ensure adequate communication staff is available during crises. Communication failures that have further victimized those already hurting should be a deafening clarion call to our profession to simply "do better’" when it comes to managing communications before, during and after an active shooter.
— Judy Pal is the founder and principal of 10-8 Communications LLC and conducts media training, communications counsel and virtual training for public safety.
Collaborate on emergency messaging ahead of time
School shooting preparation should be an ongoing task with regular review and revisions. Most major incidents have an emotional aspect to them, but none more than one that involves the most precious of our population, our kids. When this increased level of emotion is added to an active shooter situation, messaging and information sharing become a significant challenge. It is this additional challenge that requires prior planning and preparation of communications plans.
Many areas have regional PIO groups whether formal or informal. Meet with other local PIOs on a regular basis to keep contacts current so that you know who the stakeholders in emergency messaging are before the need arises. This can reduce the time it takes to stand up a Joint Information Center/System (JIC/S) which will likely be a necessity during a school shooting event. Quickly establishing a JIC/S to assure that consistent, accurate and timely messaging is being disseminated will be a significant factor in the overall success of managing a school shooting incident.
The community doesn’t just want to know, they need to know what is going on and what is being done for their children. You do not have to specify details like the number of casualties but provide what you can as soon as you can. If you have established yourself as the source of accurate and timely information, you can reduce the amount of misinformation being sent out from other sources. The correction of misinformation is nearly as important as getting accurate information out.
Some tasks that need to be planned for in a very short amount of time are:
- Establish who is the primary PIO and coordinate with other PIOs that have a vested interest (school, EMS, and others).
- Pre-plan for a shortened approval process for getting information out. (Too many levels of approval will delay messaging to the point it will result in the other sources releasing potentially damaging misinformation.)
- Establish a line of communication with the incident commander.
- Establish a media staging area, and plan for parking for large satellite trucks.
Most agencies conduct active attacker training, often in the summer when schools are empty and can be used for training. Take this opportunity to train with your response agencies, so that you know what to expect, and they are reminded that communication with the public is a part of the response.
— Darren Wright is the public information officer for the police department in Oro Valley, Arizona.
4 STEPS TO COMMUNICATION SUCCESS DURING A CRISIS
1. Invest in relationships
A crisis is no time to make friends or test communication protocols. Invest in local and regional partnerships to ensure that if the worst happens, you can address it with cohesive messaging and seamless collaboration. Plan tabletop exercises and invite other communication professionals to the table. Include schools and agencies that may be directly involved, but don’t forget to invite peripheral partners who may be able to assist with social media monitoring, joint information center staffing, media support and other tasks during a major incident. As opportunities arise, debrief after multi-agency incidents to build communication best practices and identify opportunities for improvement.
2. Develop and test templates
Does your school district have standardized templates for crisis messaging? If not, work with administrators to develop a common language for a variety of different circumstances. Most districts follow security protocols for threat response and may place schools into secure holds or lockdowns. By creating and operationalizing templates for these situations, you will learn what language resonates with staff and families, what creates confusion, and what heightens fear.
Identify who will share information at different incident stages (response, reunification, investigation, recovery) to ensure that everyone stays in their lane and amplifies messaging instead of fragmenting it. Working in partnership through these smaller crises will help school staff, law enforcement communicators and families create a familiar path for navigating challenging circumstances.
3. Talk about training
In the wake of Uvalde, families were understandably fearful about how their local law enforcement agency would respond to school violence. Take community members behind the scenes and talk about how your agency prepares for the worst. This doesn’t mean tipping your hand on tactics; you can demonstrate your commitment to protecting children by sharing the broader approach (i.e., single officer entry versus waiting for specialized teams to arrive) or testimonials from leadership talking about expectations.
4. Communicate quickly, accurately and frequently
If an active violence incident occurs in your community, link up with your school communication partners and publicly acknowledge the situation on your established channels as quickly as possible. This will encourage people to return to official, verified sources of information. Provide regular updates, even if this means reiterating details you’ve already shared. Only share vetted information, and designate someone to monitor and manage rumors and misinformation. If you have the resources, activate a joint information center to expand your capacity for responding to inquiries and reduce the call load on Dispatch.
In crisis situations, communication failures can result in unnecessary panic, disruption to operations and enduring impacts on community trust. Investing in training, relationships and a high standard of communication during smaller, day-to-day situations will prepare your agency and community for large-scale incidents.
— Kate Kimble is the public information director for Larimer County Sheriff’s Office in Colorado. She previously served as the public relations manager for Fort Collins Police Services in Fort Collins, Colorado.Read more from Kate here.
Explain lockdown processes
The policing profession has dramatically improved rapidly sharing critical information with the public in a crisis. It’s fair to say school systems have a lot of work to do on this front. One thing both law enforcement agencies and school systems should be doing during blue skies times is explaining lockdown processes. No one should assume parents understand what prompts a lockdown, how it’s determined a lockdown can be lifted and what happens in between.
Educating our audiences too often gets overlooked. Here’s one way both LEOs and school leaders can inform parents ahead of a lockdown:
Create content for social media, add it to your website, send it via newsletter and don’t just share it once. Create a calendar reminder and consider sharing once a semester.
At a minimum, include these four items:
Your audiences will greatly appreciate you thinking of them, informing them and preparing them ahead of time.
— Julie Parker, president of Julie Parker Communications, specializes in providing law enforcement media relations and social media training
Focus on what your agency is doing right in your community
When a high-profile school shooting takes place elsewhere in the country, it is incumbent on local law enforcement to ensure their community feels safe and are confident that their local police are prepared to quickly and effectively address a similar situation. This starts long before the latest horrific news story about the murder of children at school.
The Clay County Sheriff’s Office in Missouri provides school resource deputies for the North Kansas City School District, which is the second-largest school district in Missouri. We regularly share on social media about deputies’ involvement in the schools, which includes the training they do for active shooters. We often share this information in cooperation with the school district. Public information officers should establish positive working relationships with their school district communications staff and know how to reach them in an emergency.
This relationship, however, cannot hinder a timely public information response following a school shooting. A shooting is an immediate public safety threat that requires rapid law enforcement messaging to the community. There is a time and place to coordinate messaging with the school district, but the immediate aftermath of a shooting is not it.
As soon as safely possible, law enforcement should be front and center explaining to the community what happened, what measures law enforcement took to stop the threat, reunification information and more. Much as they may want to, initial news briefings after a mass shooting are not the time for school districts or elected officials to speak. This should come in the hours and days that follow.
It’s also important not to criticize another agency’s response to a school shooting publicly early in the investigation. So much is unknown, and it detracts from your message. You should be focusing on what your agency is doing right in your community.
Following the Uvalde shooting, Clay County Sheriff’s deputies provided a very visible presence at all district schools. We shared this on social media, and many parents responded by thanking us and sharing photos of the deputies at their children’s schools. That led to media coverage in which we explained our school resource deputies’ constant presence at schools and the training deputies receive to stop threats immediately. All this gave our community confidence that our children’s safety is our top priority and that we are well prepared to protect them.
— Sarah Boyd is the public relations manager for the Clay County Sheriff’s Office in Missouri.
NEXT: How the GBI handled the social media response to the Ahmaud Arbery murder