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A Lesson In Crisis Communications

   By: Darcy Silvers

A recent tragedy in my community could very well have ended up a PR nightmare, but it was handled with professionalism and compassion. A routine tox screen of a DUI suspect at a hospital turned deadly. Police removed the suspect's handcuffs so he could submit a urine sample. One armed officer remained in the room with the suspect, with a second officer posted outside the exam room door.

The supsect managed to grab the first officer's gun and turned the gun on the officer, wounding him. He then fatally shot the second officer and wounded an ER technician. He fled to the hospital roof, where we was apprehended.

What immediate action did the hospital take? It went into “lock-down” mode, meaning no one could leave any floor. This was mainly for the protection of everyone in the hospital. Several staffers in the vicinity of the incident were evacuated and remained outside the hospital during the ordeal.

What immediate action did the police take? Trained to respond to such situations, they literally surrounded the hospital. The main road leading to the hospital was closed. Residents of nearby neighborhoods were unable to leave. Employees of nearby businesses were forced to remain at work until the coast was clear.

Did anyone “point fingers” of blame in the wake of this tragedy? No.

What follow-up actions did the hospital take? It revisited its policy of how patients in police custody are examined. Within days, a more secluded area was designated for such cases.

What follow-up actions did police take? The department acknowledged that, while all police procedures were properly followed, perhaps more precautions could have been taken. The out-of-uniform officer did not have his gun in a safety-lock holster. Neither officer new of the suspect's previous violent behavior, information accessible only from computers at the precinct - not from computers in police cars out in the field.

What PR lessons are there to be learned from this incident? First, communication is key, in any situation. In a crisis situation, however, a crisis communications plan must already be in place. Second, even after the crisis is over, it's not over. Once the media frenzy has subsided, it's time to re-evaluate policies and procedures.

The death of the police officer, one who was particularly well-like and respected, hit the community hard. Hundreds upon hundreds of residents lined the streets for the funeral procession. That's why compassion is such an important component of crisis communications. During and following a crisis, emotions run high. The organizations and businesses that deal with crises on a personal level are those that will create positive, long-lasting relations with their publics.

Specializing in e-commerce and direct mail, copywriter Darcy Silvers began her career in journalism and still gets an adrenaline rush from deadline pressure. She "defected" to advertising, working for Orlando's RY&P and suburban Philly's TJP agencies, where she wrote copy for Nabisco, M&M/Mars, Johnson & Johnson and more. Her passion is PR; she served as PR director for a 7-county governmental agency in Florida, and is accredited via PRSA and IABC.

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