The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Massacre message management is new PR task

As 2012 drew to a close, Peter Lanza’s troubled 20-year-old son, Adam, was buried in a secret grave site to avoid desecration.  Adam’s remains were claimed from the coroner anonymously, and his funeral was private.  He will be mourned by few but remembered by many.

The families of unstable, and often, mentally ill young men who without explanation arm themselves and murder innocents, are in a unique public position. Their loved ones have caused indescribable pain and irreparable damage to the lives of numerous blameless bystanders, but their own lives have also been shattered.

In 1996, David Kaczynski, suspected his mentally deranged brother, Ted, was behind decades of unsolved bomb killings and reported him to the FBI. David was interviewed on CBS’s 60 Minutes and collected a reward for information leading to the arrest of the Unabomber (he gave most of the money to his brother’s victims).

Six years ago at Blacksburg’s Virginia Tech, Seung-Hui Cho, a mentally ill young man, went on a rampage killing 32 people and himself.  His sister, Sun-Kyung Cho, released a heartfelt statement of regret and conveyed the family’s sorrow and prayers for each of her brother’s victims who she listed by name.

In January 2011, after Jared Loughner killed 6 people at a political event in Tucson and seriously injured 14 others, including congresswoman Gabby Giffords, the public defender’s office handed out a 7-sentence statement to the media signed, “The Loughner Family.”  The gunman’s parents, Randy and Amy Loughner, asked for privacy and ended the communication helplessly with the words, “We don’t understand why this happened. It may not make any difference, but we wish that we could change the heinous events of Saturday. We care very deeply about the victims and their families. We are so very sorry for their loss.”

When James Holmes was taken into custody outside a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., last summer, after the suspect opened fire on an unsuspecting audience, Lt. Andrea Brown of the San Diego Police Department spoke to media on behalf of his family, asking that reporters respect their privacy.  (After a misunderstood telephone reaction, “you have the right person,” by the young man’s mother, when informed by ABC News of the horrific events, an attorney they retained through a member of their church clarified Arlene Holmes 5 word utterance.)

The most recent household members to witness their young son and brother wreak havoc on a community are the surviving family of Adam Lanza of Newtown, Conn., — who apparently shot his mother Nancy Lanza, 20 grammar school children younger than 8-years-old, and six Sandy Hook Elementary School teachers, before committing suicide last month. Adam’s brother, Ryan, and father, Peter, have not spoken to the media (both have been interviewed by the police) since the Dec. 14 tragedy, apart from releasing a written statement the following day: “Our family is grieving along with all those who have been affected by this enormous tragedy. No words can truly express how heartbroken we are. We are in a state of disbelief and trying to find whatever answers we can.”

Unfortunately, unthinkable massacres have become so commonplace that professional spokespersons have stepped into the arena. With bookers and reporters clamoring for details to understand the atrocity, the Lanza family has, perhaps inevitably, retained a public relations firm.  When the New York Post reported as fact a comment on a fake Facebook page seeming to belong to Adam’s older brother, the Lanza family “spokesperson” Errol Cockfield refuted the story.  Cockfield works for Edelman, the “world’s largest PR firm.”    He used to work as communications director for Eliot Spitzer when he was New York’s governor and was until last spring chief of staff for a New York state legislative leader.

In the past few decades Edelman, like many public relations practices, has added crisis and risk capabilities to its client offerings, but nobody imagined massacre message managing would emerge as a communications specialty.  I doubt the best strategic thinkers in existence could have anticipated their duties would soon include advising shell-shocked clients to not disclose where their children’s bodies are buried.