Tips for major incident media relations in the wake of the Virginia Tech shooting

By Richard B. Weinblatt, Police1 Columnist

In the wake of the horrific Virginia Tech shooting, the important role of the media, especially the New Media, has become especially clear. Many of the students in the shooting incident lamented a lack of information and, interestingly, that much of their information came from the Internet.

Major incidents, such as that which transpired in Blacksburg, VA, are vehicles of confusion. Today’s situation should illustrate to even the haters of media that the press served a vital role in getting the word out. Virginia Tech’s campus police could in n o way do that by themselves. A great, previously established relationship and a proactive stance is the way to go.

So, given that great relationship, what needs to happen when “the big one” hits your jurisdiction? Here’s a review:

1. Set up a perimeter and place your command post and press briefing areas (they should be separate) well out of the active scene. In the case of bombings, such as what happened in Georgia, secondary devices can be rigged to go off to injure responding officers and deputy sheriffs, as well as officials at the command post.

2. Have regular briefings by an established public information officer (PIO) or law enforcement executive. In the case of multi-agency involvement, one person should become the face of the law enforcement effort. Former Montgomery County (MD) Police Chief Charles Moose was a prime example of this during the beltway sniper situation.

3. Avoid the clichés of “no comment.” Media folks will go elsewhere to produce the story if you don’t give them some information. That elsewhere may be sources that have misinformation or even a contrary agenda.

4. Be aware of your state and local laws and policies regarding open records and “sunshine” concepts. You may be limited in what you can withhold from the media.

5. With number four in mind, take care not to give so much information that impair the ongoing enforcement and rescue efforts or the impending investigation. Names of involved persons should be redacted from statements pending notification of next of kin.

6. Any specific information that is released should be done in written press release form to avoid mistakes when the media reproduces the material. Better yet, the information should also be sent out in electronic form (emails) and posted to the press release section of the agency’s website.

7. Use other websites as well. In the case of a campus shooting, the college website should be used. In a longer, drawn out information campaign, student blogs can be a powerful ally and give the agency a voice to an audience they have trouble normally reaching.

The new media is a key component in the modern police chief or sheriff’s bid to reach out. We see that clearly and most recently in the Virginia Tech shooting. Many students have already reported that they got their information from the Internet. News websites and blogs have become the town center where news and ideas are exchanged. Police and sheriff’s departments need to be on the cutting edge of this media movement in order to get the word out and better serve a rapidly evolving society.

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