PIO Lessons Learned from WDBJ-TV Tragedy

By: Mark E. Brady, Chief Spokesperson/Public Information Officer

Friends and new acquaintances often ask me after they hear what I do for a living, “I bet you have seen everything?”  My response is always, “I may think so until the next incident occurs.”

On Wednesday, Aug. 26 two journalists were shot and killed by a disgruntled ex-employee of the television station they worked for, a CBS affiliate, WDBJ, in Roanoke, Virginia. 

Countless viewers witnessed the premeditated homicides during the live broadcast and replayed the footage many times after the attack.  The murderer, positioned just feet away from his targets, waited during a live early morning news broadcast until Adam Ward, a 27-year-old cameraman, was focused on Alison Parker, a 24-year-old reporter. 

Both Ward and Parker were shot and killed in the attack.  Vicki Gardner, head of the Smith Mountain Lake Regional Chamber of Commerce, was being interviewed by Ward and Parker and sustained a gunshot wound during the attack.  She is expected to survive.

The use of social media, a valuable tool in our public information officer (PIO) toolbox, also played a role in that the gunman recorded the heinous act and soon uploaded the video to Twitter and Facebook.  Did this action and attention strike a chord with others?

PIOs and our media associates must continue to provide news as we always have, however, is there a need for safety concerns for yourself and the media you are working with? Absolutely. There has always been and there will always be safety concerns within a fire department incident scene or simple stand-up on-camera interview.   Now, we must be aware that this has occurred and could happen again, anywhere at anytime.

While most of our interview opportunities are held in relatively safe environments, as compared to our law enforcement counterparts, there is always room to remain vigilant and safe.  As the PIO, you are responsible for the safety of the media on your incident scene.  While the Smith Mountain shooting appears to have been an isolated vengeful attack, it remains our goal to ensure everyone goes home after every call.  If this means relocating a media area away from the general public or off the shoulder of a busy road, it is our responsibility to ensure for everyone’s safety.  Once the media makes their way to obtain other interviews or to get that “better angle,” there is not much a PIO can do to control their safety except to make it perfectly clear that they are on their own.   Reality is that nothing short of having additional staff and security present during the early morning live shot could have made a difference in the outcome.  PIO’s should note this tragedy occurred and never forget it.

Remaining vigilant is a high quality for a PIO.  Being a good PIO is being aware of your surroundings, situation and ongoing incident status, all while keeping an eye out for the “live truck” or reporter and videographer like Alison and Adam, at all times.  After yesterday, awareness and a higher degree of vigilance should be included.

Just as you critique your departments’ operations after a significant incident or your personal performance of your duties as PIOs, you need to examine the Virginia incident and put yourselves in the position of Vicki Gardiner and ask yourself, “Would I or could I have done anything differently?”  Your answer, most likely, is no.  We need to walk away with the awareness that this incident has occurred and with the crazy potential that it could occur again.  We think we have seen everything until that next incident occurs.