Students find public relations lessons emerging from Amish school shootings

Students in my Media Relations & Publicity class at Kent State take turns presenting current-events cases to kick off each class meeting. It’s called the 3-minute drill, an idea stolen from PR and crisis management maven Jim Lukaszewski and brought to our school by my new colleague, Jeanette Drake.

Nicole’s presentation yesterday focused on the violent deaths of the Amish girls in Pennsylvania. She suggested a number of questions about what the event will mean to public relations pros and their clients.

A sober discussion followed and some lessons emerged:

The gun debate. PR professionals in the firearms industry can expect the usual hue and cry for more stringent gun control. And as usual, they’ll find themselves in a no-win situation, because even the Bill of Rights will seem like lame rationale with five innocent kids dead.

Gun-control advocates will seize on the event to illustrate the problem of gun violence. The story will become a “triggering event” that finds its way into lobbying and fundraising strategies. It will be emotional and persuasive, albeit a tad opportunistic.

School administration issues. Administrators and school board members can expect loud and numerous questions about security. And they’ll be forced to respond. Jeff Jarvis wrote about this yesterday on BuzzMachine in one of those “wish I’d said that” posts.

Building security presents especially tough questions for schools in my state and others where government support for education is hitting all-time lows. What does a high-school principal — hard pressed to provide everything from textbooks to football unifoms — do when faced with the prospect of a 6- or 7-figure security upgrade that parents are sure to demand? Major budget challenges will emerge from the school-violence discussion.

Side Note: In Northeast Ohio, a local columnist amplified the discussion, reporting the ease with which he entered eight of nine local school buildings without so much as a suspicious glance cast his way. Before you criticize Bob Dyer for exploiting the tragedy, know that his column appeared 24 hours before the killings in Pennsyvania. That column and the one that followed are worth reviewing if this issue touches your life.

Security Industry. Since 9/11, the security biz has been a brisk one. As the PR director for one of these suppliers, how do you react to the Pennsylvania tragedy? And how do you do it without appearing to exploit the situation?

Here’s a case in which ongoing media-relations efforts pay dividends. Reporters should already know that you have experts available to speak on the school-security topic. If they do, it’s OK to subtley remind them now. They can use your help and your company’s knowledge.

No person or industry wants to be seen as exploiting tragedy, but a well-thought-out response from a major supplier will enrich discussion, even if it also brings with it business leads.

At Kent State, we pride ourselves in professional education that “keeps it real.” This week, events were a bit TOO real for me. But the lessons are too important for PR professionals, or public relations students, to ignore.


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