Emergency communications can be a tricky thing. For one thing, you want to be sure to protect the privacy of the victim and their family. Another consideration is that you may not know at the time you find a victim whether a crime has been committed.
When the search is conducted in concert with local police, the safe thing to do as a Public Information Officer is to defer any details to law enforcement. The last thing you want to do is to share information that the police do not want to share.
I was recently on a search with a team where the person in charge had ongoing conversations with the family of the person who was missing. These conversations were a nightly occurance, and they would (reportedly) go on for hours. Things were discussed that should be protected information, including medications the missing person was taking, and the state of mind the missing person was in shortly before becoming lost.
A staging area was set up in a parking lot near the last place that the person was seen. This staging area had two teams, but not a unified command. The reason there was no unified command is that the visiting team was the team where the person in charge had the contact with the victim’s family. He did not want to abdicate authority, or at least, that’s what he told his team. The other team was within their jurisdiction, and should have been in charge, however without establishing a clear chain of command or authority, the team members were left to ponder the pavement and contemplate the weather.
The person in charge of the first team took off, telling the team member that he would be back. He went off with a psychic. That’s the last time the team members saw the leader until later.
Ironically, the person in charge apparently decided to search by himself in an area where a shoe had been discovered the week before. Why the shoe was not catalogued or photographed or entered as evidence is probably due to the fact that it was found by two new rookie team members who had very little idea what they were looking for or how to handle clues.
In any case, the person in charge went out to review the clue (the shoe) and right where the show was found the week before was where the victim was. Unfortunately, the victim was deceased.
After alerting police and leaving the scene to reconvene and debrief, the person in charge’s phone kept ringing and ringing. He’d look at the phone, shake his head, and not answer. Eventually he indicated that it was the brother of the victim, the same person he’d been communicating with on an ongoing basis over the last few weeks with the nightly phone calls. The media had reported that the team found a person, and apparently he heard this information and wanted to know what was going on.
The person in charge continued to avoid the calls. This, in my opinion, is wrong. If he had not communicated with the family on an ongoing basis, that may be OK to not answer, however, at this point, he had established a relationship and the family was frantic for information.
What would be appropriate for him to share? The facts. No conjecture, but only what was obvious and evident, then share the way for the family to get more information, which would be through the coroners office or the detectives of law enforcement.
Understanding what is Ok to say and when it’s OK to say it is incredibly important for a PIO. Obviously, this individual did not have the background, the knowledge or the skill to handle the task.
Training a team ahead of time, with regard to who can say something and what is acceptable to share should be basic training for any search team. Let me know what you think in the comments.