Aurora theater shooting: Spokespeople help victims' families deal with media

All day on Saturday, July 21 -- the day after authorities say 24-year-old James Holmes killed twelve people and injured 58 others at a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora -- Sergeant Cassidee Carlson couldn't stop thinking about something the governor's communications director had said to her as the two stood outside Holmes's booby-trapped apartment:

Be sure to think about the victims' families.

"I was thinking about that all day and I was like, 'You know what? These poor families have been told the unimaginable and their grief is unbearable and to know that the media is going after them like they're going after us, I thought there's got to be something we can do,'" says Carlson, one of the Aurora Police Department's two public information officers.

The solution she came up with is simple and helpful: Pair a public information officer with each victim's family to help field the enormous number of phone calls they're liable to receive. Aurora's PIOs were already inundated with requests -- Carlson says they received more than 2,000 calls from media around the world within the first 72 hours after the shooting -- so Carlson reached out to her colleagues in the Emergency Services Public Information Officers of Colorado, a professional nonprofit for local PIOs. While she and her colleagues at the Aurora PD were busy briefing the press on the quickly evolving investigation, PIOs from other departments could assist the families.

"If they wanted to do interviews, we could facilitate that because we deal with the media -- that's what we do for a living," Carlson says of the families. Or, if they wanted to stay out of the spotlight, the PIOs could communicate that message, too, she says: "It was really to provide the families with a buffer from the media so they could grieve."

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In the end, most of the families of the victims who died accepted assistance. The PIO liaisons, as Carlson came to call them, set up Gmail accounts to field interview requests from various newspapers and television and radio stations and communicate whether the families would welcome media at the memorial services. Their role was not to serve as on-camera spokespeople or quotable sources, Carlson says, but as facilitators.

"For as quick as it came together, I think it's provided amazing support for these families," she says, adding, "I think it's something that can be duplicated and refined."

Hopefully, it will never have to be.

For more, read our Aurora Theater Shooting archive.

Follow me on Twitter @MelanieAsmar

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