Security: When the Hyena Prowls

One of the most feared and reviled, yet necessary, wild animals on the African continent, the hyena, can be a vicious predator for the sick or wounded. In the same manner, the American press corps has been known to converge on the wounded with savage and brutal efficiency. The media response following the Virginia Tech campus shooting is a good reminder for educators to be prepared for a sometimes carnivorous press.

In more than 100 media interviews during the 48 hours following this devastating incident, I noted a very pronounced tendency for some reporters to focus on proving negligence on the part of the Virginia Tech president and university police chief, though reliable information was still sketchy. While most of the reporters I spoke with were polite and professional, others acted in the most vile manner that I can recall during the past 30 years.

Having been interviewed by almost every major news organization in the United States and many from other countries, I must say that the majority of my direct experiences with the media have been favorable. Unfortunately, many reporters clearly came to conclusions without the facts as the news was breaking for this event. During a remote television interview the day after the shooting, with one of the best known news programs in the country, the anchor became incensed when I refused four times to confirm her belief that Virginia Tech officials had caused the deaths of students through negligence. They quickly found a school safety consultant willing to assert that most of the deaths occurred because the university was trying to cover up the first two homicides. This consultant regularly sends out alarmist press releases including some alleging that school superintendents often cover up murders of students on school property.

This type of behavior by the media makes it necessary to prepare your organization for an onslaught of press that could occur on any given school day. Here are a few tips to keep the beasts at bay.

Prepare key staff about what to do

Personnel tasked with crisis media responsibilities should receive formal training on how to interact with the media. Information should be released to the press in a regular and organized fashion. In an excellent media-relations presentation, a state police press officer recently used the analogy of hungry dogs. He said the press during a crisis can be like hungry dogs, they are okay as long as you feed them regularly, but if you don’t feed them they will go through your garbage and find what they are looking for. Prepare your organization to provide structured, concise, and accurate information to the press under extremely chaotic conditions or the press will get its information elsewhere.

Prepare other staff on what not to do

While most school emergency preparedness plans contain written guidelines on how authorized staff are to release information to the media, most lack an even more important set of instructions — what all remaining staff who are not authorized to talk to the media should not do. For example, in the specific emergency chart for school bus drivers, there should be a functional protocol for dealing with the media.

Make your preparations 3-D

Properly coordinated 10- to 20-minute tabletop exercises involving all staff, along with periodic functional exercises for key staff, is the most effective way to condition staff not to speak to the press under the stress of a major crisis. Paper plans are of limited use without a chance for all staff to apply them. Virtual tabletops are an exceptionally valuable, time-efficient staff development tool to accomplish this.

Make your organization NIMS compliant

If your school superintendent, head of school, key cabinet officials, department heads, building administrators, and crisis team members have not been formally trained and honed their skills using the National Incident Management System (NIMS), your organization is fully prepared to fail to properly manage the media during a catastrophic event. Without the information and resource management system, key staff will not be able to keep apprised of fast-paced situations in an accurate and timely manner.

While the majority of school administrators will never face masses of hostile reporters, it does happen often enough to make it prudent for every public school system, private school, and independent school to prepare the onslaught of hyenas on the day they hope will never come.

About the Author

Michael S. Dorn has helped conduct security assessments for more than 6,000 K-12 schools, keynotes conferences internationally and has published 27 books including Staying Alive – How to Act Fast and Survive Deadly Encounters. He can be reached at www.safehavensinternational.org.

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