For many surviving families who have lost a loved one in the military, our interactions with the media are interwoven with our experiences in the days immediately after our loved one dies. We encounter the reporters on our front porch, field phone calls from the Associated Press, and might even scan pictures to share.
As a seasoned public relations professional with more than a decade of experience, I am no stranger to this type of intense scrutiny from the media. I have faced attack ads and rallied supporters for threatened programs. After Hurricane Katrina, I handled an avalanche of media attention at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children for the largest missing child recovery effort in our nation’s history.
But in August of 2007 it wasn’t my client facing the media maelstrom. It was my family. I was on vacation at the beach when I received the devastating news that my 22-year-old brother, U.S. Army Specialist Christopher Neiberger, had been killed in Iraq. As we drove to my parent’s home in Florida, a decade of media relations training kicked into auto-pilot in my grief-numbed brain, and we began to talk as a family about what approach to take.
My parents decided that talking with the media about Chris’s life was okay, so we opted to speak with reporters, but with clearly defined limits. My brothers and I told stories about Chris to our hometown paper. Per mother’s orders, no on-camera TV interviews were done those first few weeks. The TV station made do with our minister, scouting buddies, and a phone interview with me.
Some of the out-of-town media behaved like attack dogs. Satellite TV trucks stalked Neibergers statewide – my aunts, uncles, and cousins – even lying to them. These reporters were ignored. Our hometown media helped distribute information about the memorial fund we’d set up, which allowed the community to participate in grieving a boy who grew up among them and became a hero.
Reporters thanked us for allowing access during this stressful and horrible time – and the resulting accounts told the story of the brother I knew. I believe our openness contributed to our hometown media downplaying (and ignoring) the presence of the Westboro Baptist Church protestors, who gathered outside the memorial service.
A few months after Christopher’s death, I wrote a guide to help military families facing tragedy and dealing with a flurry of media attention. It’s available in the Resources section on my website. Several casualty officers have contacted me about the guide, saying they find it helpful and are using it with recently bereaved families who are experiencing a media onslaught.
Now I work with TAPS as the public affairs officer, and I talk with many surviving families about their experiences with the media, and about opportunities to share their stories in the press. Here are a few tips for surviving families on talking with the media:
How you interact with the media, is always up to you. It is ok if your family does not want to talk to the media now, tomorrow, or ever. Don’t feel like you have to talk to the media, simply because other families have done so.
Weigh each request for an interview individually. Consider the proposed story idea and the attitude of the reporter who called. Was the reporter respectful? Lackadaisical? Did he or she sound empathetic and sincere? Think about how you feel about doing an interview in the time frame proposed.
Know who you are talking to. Look at the media outlet’s website and see what kinds of stories they’ve done. Often the outlet will have a biography online about the reporter, and you can see other stories they’ve produced or written. You can ask to see questions before an interview and discuss the angle.
Consider your family before agreeing to an interview. Think about the impact of media coverage. This is particularly important for families with children, and families that have experienced the pain of suicide. How will your family feel about seeing this story on television or in their newspaper?
Always exercise caution with requests from the media to talk with children. For some children, talking about their Dad is healing and a way to honor them. For others, a media interview adds to their trauma. A parent, guardian, or trained grief professional, should be present if a child is being interviewed by a reporter.
Direct the interview where you want it to go. For many families, talking to the media is a way to honor their loved one and the remarkable life lived. It can be helpful to write up ahead of time key points you want to make, to review important dates in your loved one’s life, and to consider which photos to share.
The interview will go better if the reporter is sensitive to the family. At TAPS, we recommend that before reporters talk to family members, they review the tip sheets and self-study materials published by the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma (www.dartcenter.org). These guidelines offer advice to reporters on how to talk with trauma survivors.
Get tips on how to do a media interview if you are anxious. It’s normal to be concerned about how you might appear, especially if the interview is on-camera. I’m glad to send you my tip sheet on how to prepare for an interview. Just drop an email with “Media Interview Tips” in the subject line to email@example.com.
Realize that most reporters are not out to get you. Most reporters will focus their stories around your loved one, your memories, and how your family is doing now. Many will be genuinely sympathetic to your family and will want to produce a story one that pleases you. More than 95% of the reporters we deal with through TAPS are empathetic to the family, and try very hard to tell the family’s story. The other 5% we don’t allow to talk to families!
Consider how you will handle questions about war and politics if they come up. Many families have differences of opinion about politics, so this can be a minefield. Personally, I find it best to keep interviews centered on my brother’s life and his love for the military. If you don’t want to say anything, you should never say “no comment.” Another option: “I think the real point that I am trying to make is that my loved one cared deeply about his career in the military.”
Previously agreeing to an interview, does not mean perpetually agreeing to talk to the media. The nature of traumatic grief is such that a person who is capable of being interviewed one day, may not be comfortable with an interview the next day. It is okay to back out of an interview if you are not up to it or have second thoughts.
Do what feels comfortable, when it comes to deciding on an interview location. For elderly parents or a widow with children, there are sometimes safety concerns about the media filming the outside of their home, which might reveal where they live or expose them to unwanted attention or crime. You don’t have to agree to an interview in your home. You can do it somewhere else, in-studio at the station, or at a public park.
Use caution when approached for a book or film project that is not done by a reputable news outlet, as well as any free-lance writers who do not have in-hand an assignment letter from a reputable magazine. There are folks who want to write books, publish stories, and make movies about surviving families. Sometimes these people are visionaries who do amazing things. Sometimes they have pipedreams and no training or experience in writing or filmmaking. Sometimes they are voyeuristic, and occasionally they are exploitative. Use caution before agreeing to cooperate with a lone ranger.
Never assume that your Facebook/MySpace/Blog or anything else you put online is out of the public eye. Unfortunately, whatever is posted on those sites is in a public domain. If you don’t want a picture to be on TV, do not put it on your Facebook profile.
Select the family photos you want to share, and then stick to a set package. Many families do not want their entire family photo album scattered across the Internet. Select a few photos that you like and are willing to share, and provide the same set every time you talk to the media.
Any photos taken by a media outlet are copyrighted by that media outlet. You can ask to get copies of the photos and footage. Many media outlets will give this to you for free. Some charge families for copies of photographs. These photos are often sold online through photo databases. You can talk with the media ahead of time about what will happen to the photos, and how the rights for the photos will be managed.
While working with the media may be challenging at times, it can also help us honor the people we love and miss so very much. There’s a reason why people have jobs like mine – it’s not always easy to work with the media. There are a lot of things about it that can’t be predicted or controlled. Even so, remember that when asked to talk with the press, it is always your choice.
Ami Neiberger-Miller is accredited in public relations and works part-time as the public affairs officer for TAPS, in addition to owning a thriving public relations and design practice near Washington, DC.