Early on Sunday morning, June 12, I woke to the news that 20 people had been killed in a shooting at a downtown Orlando nightclub four miles from my house. “Wow,” I thought, “that’s going to be a huge news story.” I had no idea.
At a press conference two hours later, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer delivered the news that not 20, but 50 people were confirmed dead and 53 were injured. The worst mass shooting in U.S. history. The collective gasp from reporters was audible.
Like most PR professionals, I’m a news junkie. When tragic events occur, I consume news coverage the way others binge-watch Orange Is the New Black. The 9/11 terrorist attacks. The Boston Marathon bombing. Sandy Hook. Now, Orlando. It’s cliché, but I never thought it would happen in my own backyard – a city synonymous with the happiest place on earth.
Watching the news unfold nonstop for more than a week took on greater significance knowing many of my PR friends and colleagues were in the midst of the most demanding, once-in-a-lifetime experiences of their careers. I was at once pained by what they were having to handle and proud of how well they were rising to the challenge.
For Mayor Dyer and his deputy chief of staff, the call came at 3 a.m. about an active shooter at Pulse nightclub with casualties and hostages. They arrived on the scene and conducted the first news conference at 7 a.m., followed by the 10:30 news conference that detailed the shocking scope of the massacre.
Reflecting on that press conference, Dyer said, “I thought it was important that the mayor reveal the reality and the totality of the situation. I had to take a pretty big breath and a deep gulp to get that out. I know my voice was shaking when I was doing that.”
As the day wore on, the news briefings swelled to include everyone from the FBI, U.S. Attorney General’s Office and Florida’s governor to Orange County’s mayor and sheriff, the Orlando Police Department, and the trauma physicians treating the victims.
A media “village” was set up to meet the needs of news outlets worldwide and serve as a home base for days of live reporting that included CNN’s Anderson Cooper, NBC Nightly News’ Lester Holt and TODAY’s Matt Lauer, to name but a few.
Social media became a primary communications channel to deliver frequent media updates and information for the public. News of the hospital’s urgent need for blood resulted in hundreds of people lining up for hours to donate. #PrayforOrlando and #OrlandoUnited quickly became top-trending hashtags. The city also launched a website to post all of the public records related to the event.
A public vigil drew 50,000 people. President Obama and Vice President Biden came to town to meet with the victims and lay flowers at a growing public memorial.
I have managed my fair share of crises. None were remotely close to the Pulse massacre, but they were enough to make me appreciate that these events don’t happen without a degree of planning, coordination and communication that most people cannot begin to imagine.
Two weeks after the massacre, Dyer was asked to address the U.S. Conference of Mayors, offering advice and lessons learned. “In this world today, every mayor in America needs to understand this could happen in their city, and they need to be prepared for it,” he said. His number one lesson was the importance of communication, being concise in giving out the facts, making sure that the public knows that you have it under control, and that the community is safe.
For PR professionals, one of the lessons learned from the Pulse tragedy is the importance of having a well-planned and practiced crisis communications plan in place. You never know when it will happen to you.
Carolyn Reis, APR, is a veteran public relations consultant nationally trained in crisis communications. Her firm, Orlando-based Reis Corporate Public Relations, focuses on serving the strategic marketing communications needs of business-to-business clients in Florida and national companies with a Florida presence. You can reach her at Carolyn@ReisCorporatePR.com or on Twitter @carolynreisapr.