As first responders address the immediate, critical and life-or-death needs of those affected by a mass casualty event, there is an equally important partner often forgotten about during times of mass casualty events: the role of the public information officer.
Public Information Officers – sometimes called media relations contacts or PR – can address the information needs of local, national and international media organizations, during these intense, confusing and stressful events, thus ensuring the right information is shared, at the right time, and by the right agency experts — which also allows first responders to focus on the most important job at hand: taking care of the victims, finding the perpetrators, and keeping the public safe.
- Things that went well,
- Lessons learned,
- How the innovative PIO Family Liaison program which was developed.
JCH: Talk to us about the events of that day, from the perspective of the PIO.
Cassidee Carlson: I was not the on-call PIO that night, my partner was. My phone rang and it was the PIO from one of the hospitals. I did not answer but listened to the voicemail and she said something about a shooting at the mall. A short time later my partner called me and said that he was notified of multiple people getting shot at the mall. This was confusing because the mall was closed. He said, “I don’t know what is going on, but it sounds bad. Multiple people shot. I may need some assistance.” I started getting ready to come in when he called me back and said that his phone was already blowing up with media and he was driving to the scene and asked me to reach out to the media. I quickly drafted an email to our local media outlets and then headed to the scene. At that time the local media had access to our radio channels, so media interest was almost immediate. It seemed never-ending for about 8 straight days.
I think to this day I still don’t fully understand the impact this event has had on my life.
Every time another mass shooting happens,
your heart sinks into your gut.
JCH: What were the biggest or most significant challenges you and your team faced in managing the press and demand for information?
Cassidee: It was the sheer volume of calls and interest. This garnered international interest within hours. Furthermore, this was an ongoing event, lasting a few days until all issues were resolved. The shooting happened Thursday into Friday and there was not a gag order in place until Monday evening. On top of that, this case is kind of unique when it comes to mass shootings because the shooter was arrested and not dead. There are significant considerations when dealing with an active and open criminal case.
JCH: While we all like to believe that we can plan for anything and everything, inevitably things we didn’t plan for happen during a crisis. What were some of those things that you couldn’t anticipate? How did you overcome them (or address them?)
Cassidee: Where to begin. There are so many random things that happen when you are in the middle of an event like this. Some of those things that present themselves are, of course, inaccurate and sometimes purposefully false information that in today’s age of social media, takes off like wildfire. That can be a challenge to control.
Being a part of something like this will forever change you.
It will change you in so many ways, it is hard to put down into words.
JCH: A large number of our readers and subscribers are in law enforcement, but we have representation from all parts of the justice arena. Can you share some specifics of what different types of justice professionals or first responders will gain by attending your webinar? What skills or new knowledge will they gain that they can immediately use the next day on the job?
Cassidee: When an event like this happens, it just doesn’t fall solely on the police department. It literately affects every aspect of your communities. During this webinar I focus on what went well and valuable lessons learned. I will provide attendees with bits of information, technology tools, and efficiency measures that they can immediately implement into their own fields. There are other ideas that they can start working on so they can be prepared if a crisis event hits their community. Information shared can be used across several disciplines and in regards to any crisis situation, large or small, or any high media interest situation.
JCH: How have the events of that time – the event itself as well as the aftermath – shaped or changed you? What lessons have you taken away from that experience?
Being a part of something like this will forever change you. It will change you in so many ways, it is hard to put down into words. I look around and see how it effects those around me, my dear friends who were first responders, the Victim Advocates who sat with the families, the unsung heroes working behind the scenes who so often go un-thanked or unnoticed for their tireless efforts. I think to this day I still don’t fully understand the impact this event has had on my life. Every time another mass shooting happens, your heart sinks into your gut. You relive what you, your colleagues, and community went through. You hurt for those people.