It was a crisis that grabbed the nation’s attention. In August of 2015, a Roanoke, Virginia TV news crew was ambushed, shot and killed on live TV. As a former TV news producer, it really hit home and stayed in my head for days. Those could have been my co-workers. That could have been my newscast. That Sunday, I heard an interview with the station’s General Manager, Jeff Marks, on CNN’s Reliable Sources. He handled it, and seemingly the situation, perfectly. He sounded like the ideal leader for an organization and community enduring circumstances that were exceptionally challenging. Marks articulated everything leaders should communicate in a crisis – facts, reassurance and concern for the people affected.
Now retired from full-time work in the TV business, we asked Marks to offer Tanner Friedman’s readers insights and lessons learned from that ordeal. Here is his guest blog post:
Yes, I’m that guy.
Despite all the other mass shootings in the last two years, people still seem to remember the two journalists shot and killed during a live broadcast.
You recall: Alison Parker and Adam Ward were interviewing the woman from the chamber of commerce when they were all ambushed by a “disgruntled former employee.”
The interviewee lived. My two dear souls died. For days after, as general manager of the television station, I was inside our building consoling and outside being the face of WDBJ7 in Roanoke, Virginia for media from Ukraine to Japan.
I hate clichés unless they are accurate and this one is: not a day goes by that I don’t think of Alison and Adam. When I am back in Roanoke, I make a point to visit the beautiful memorial to them which the people of WDBJ7 completed after I had moved on.
People have all sorts of questions and observations, prominent among them is the notion that you just can’t prepare for something like this. I tell them, gently, that they are wrong. Management is all about preparedness.
Here is what I mean.
For many years, I had had a game plan for the inevitable day one of my employees were to die on the job.
• We CPR trained many of the staff.
• We installed a defibrillator.
• I knew what clergy and counselors I would call.
• I had a plan for notifying family of the victims and communicating with our staff members.
On that terrible morning, the most important element I could bring to the business was calm. I was the first manager to reach the television station, and I immediately set out to gather as many facts as I could. At the same time, I offered consolation and hope to the most deeply affected people.
I concluded quickly, from my journalism background, that my employees were almost certainly dead but I did not let anyone know what I thought.
People stepped up:
• One middle manager took it upon himself to be the liaison with the families.
• I called a senior manager who lived near the shooting scene to ask him to go to the scene to provide a first-hard report. (I did not adequately consider the traumatic effect that identifying the bodies of our colleagues would have on him, but someone had to do it and I felt that my place was with the employees.)
• The photography team examined the view from Adam’s camera and found a single frame that caught the image of the killer, someone they knew from his employment that had ended more than two years earlier.
• Employees from other departments brought food, consoled their colleagues, answered the phones and filled many other gaps.
• Not knowing whether the shooter would be going after former colleagues who had moved to other cities, our employees reached out to several of them in nearby markets to let them know of the possible danger.
We had been stepping up security for our main studio for several years. Television stations had become targets, so we had turned our reception area into something of a friendly fortress. We had invited a police expert in to assess our vulnerabilities and we had followed his key suggestions:
• We put mirrors at hallway junctions so that police could see around corners, should someone get loose in our building.
• We put room numbers on door frames inside each office so that anyone holed up in an office could let authorities know where they were on the map of the building.
• We drilled peepholes into side and back doors.
• We started to enforce a name tag rule and to require that visitors be escorted.
• We offered to provide additional people, including security, to anyone with concern about an outside assignment.
• We ordered bullet-proof vests for anyone to use.
• We told journalists that they could call off an assignment that appeared dangerous.
• We stopped promoting online and on the air where our a reporter would be conducting a live update, and we made it policy that a reporter would move to a new location after each live report.
• We brought in our police expert to advise the team on how to stay safe in the field and at their desks.
After the shootings, and even after I left the job seven months after the event, the station took more steps:
• Fencing part of our property to discourage people cutting through our back lawn where they could not be seen.
• Ordering additional concrete planters to prevent vehicles driving up our walkway into our lobby. (It had happened at another station.)
• Tinting windows.
In more than 30 years of supervising, I had never lost an employee on or off the job. I was a few months from retiring on August 26, 2015, when the awful thing happened.
The fact is that a television station has to send people out every day, to work with advertisers, to repair towers, to cover the news. They are as vulnerable as children in school or families at the movies, and we cannot protect everyone all the time.
Nevertheless, in the United States journalism is a largely safe profession. These two were not killed because of what they reported, but because a fellow with anger issues had gone off the deep end and blamed others for what he could not control in himself.
A few weeks after the killing, a man came to our building to buy a cookbook our team had authored. He saw me and said, “You know, if those kids had been armed, this wouldn’t have happened.”
I nearly jumped through the glass as I said to him, “Those kids were ambushed, and if even if they had had an armed security guard with them, there would have been three dead, not two.”
The one thing we did not consider was arming our people.
Marks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org