Official Blog of Bannon Leadership Consulting Founder Shawn Bannon

Answering Your Questions — Communicating After a Workplace Tragedy

From time to time I’ll use this space to answer readers’ questions about the practice of Public Relations.  Here’s a great question and some advice you can use if you find your organization in the midst of an unanticipated crisis.

Q: I’m looking to find out what the dos and don’ts would be in dealing with the media in regard to the following two scenarios: 1) workplace violence and 2) job fatality. What is/is not safe to say? What information should/shouldn’t be given out?

A: Hopefully you’ll never find yourself facing down the media in either of these situations, but it’s always smart to think ahead about how you and your organization will manage public relations in the event of a crisis.  Ideally you have a comprehensive communications plan in place to ensure all the key figures within your organization know their roles and that you’re all working — quite literally — from the same playbook.  But what happens if you’re caught totally off guard and unprepared?

First thing’s first — consult with your head of Human Resources and your Legal team. Make sure you understand what you’re legally not allowed to divulge due to local/state privacy laws.

Once you understand the privacy issues, stick to the basic facts of the situation. If called by the press, confirm only what you know with absolute certainty — yes there was an incident/violent attack/workplace accident; yes there was an injury/fatality; etc. Don’t speculate at all about motive for a violent attack or what may have been the cause of the fatality; defer to the authorities to uncover this information in their investigation. Two reasons for that — first, you don’t want to be wrong about such a sensitive subject in a potentially high-profile situation; secondly, you don’t want to expose your organization to legal action if security procedures may be called into question or perhaps a piece of company equipment may be to blame.

Media will press for more information, but you’ll get through the initial hours of an occasion like this if you’re open about what you know for certain, if your organization is cooperating fully with investigators, and if you defer questions about the things you don’t know to the investigating authorities.

Of course, anything you can say about the services your company is offering to the victim, victim’s family or other employees (e.g. grief counseling), and inquiring customers helps to demonstrate that your organization is being proactive where it can even if you’re unable to get into some of the details that the media would like to discuss.

Times like these can be full of tumult and will test you in ways you don’t expect.  Stay calm, pause to think before every answer, stick to your message and don’t overreach to answer a reporter’s question if it stretches you beyond what you know with absolute certainty.  There’s always time to expand and share more information later, but you can’t take back what you shouldn’t have said once it’s out in the open.

Got a question you’d like to see answered here?  E-mail me at

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