Sandy Hook 5th anniversary: New York Times profiles a town seeking privacy

Sandy Hook 5th anniversary: New York Times profiles a town seeking privacy

Every time I watch TV coverage of another mass shooting it breaks my heart. The list is too long to mention them all but the one that comes to the top of my mind is Sandy Hook.

It's now been five years since a gunman shot and killed 26 people at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, CT. Twenty of the victims were first graders.

The town has asked the news media to stay away from Newtown every anniversary. The press still covers the anniversary – as it is a major event in the ongoing national debate over guns and gun control. But the stories aren't as complete without the usual on the ground sources.

The New York Times runs anniversary piece with source roadblocks

The New York Times ran a front page piece on the anniversary looking at how the town has survived the tragedy and how it juggles a desire for privacy while it is in the middle of the national debate over guns.  It was a well-done piece of journalism, despite the town's request for privacy.

Symptomatic of the privacy, one person who spoke to the Times did so at a Starbucks outside the town line so she could speak freely without being overheard.

Personally, I can understand this reticence and emotion – a cousin of mine was shot to death many years ago so I get this kind of loss -- 26 times worse than mine. I also had a PR client who is one of the parents of a first grader killed in the Sandy Hook massacre.

Yes, I am sensitive to this issue, but there is a bigger PR purpose

As sensitive as I am to this, as a PR person I have to ask is this the best PR approach for the town? Like it or not, they are Exhibit A in the argument over guns in this country.

We have a current political climate that even though a majority of the public would like action on background checks and other gun issues, nothing has been done since Sandy Hook. And nothing has been done since other massacres like Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs, TX.

One of the few pieces of federal legislative action relating to guns was a bill in Congress aimed at expanding state concealed gun carry laws to other states.

More PR needed by town: Look to Sandy Hook promise and suit against gunmaker

As unwilling participants in the gun control debate, I think the town of Newtown needs to do more from a PR point of view. I am not talking about doing media interviews every day but at the appropriate moments -- including the Sandy Hook anniversary.

While the town request for privacy made the Times reporters job more difficult, I would single out two Newtown-Sandy Hook initiatives as examples of what can be done.

First, a local group called Sandy Hook Promise was formed by several family members after the massacre and has worked tirelessly on gun control issues. Second, some of the Sandy Hook families sued the company that made the gun used in the attack and are continuing that battle in the courts. They appealed after the suit was dismissed based on gun companies' immunity from liability.

When I think about all of this and Newtown's request for privacy, I recall when I was a reporter covering a breaking crime, accident or disaster story, I always tried to be sensitive to the people involved. I still believe in sensitivity but there's more at stake here.

Newtown was thrust into the PR and societal debate over guns. I hope it takes a more active role for the greater good.

Andrew Blum is a PR consultant and media trainer and principal of AJB Communications. He has directed PR for professional services and financial services firms, NGOs, agencies and other clients. As a PR executive, and formerly as a journalist, he has been involved on both sides of the media aisle in some of the most media intensive crises of the past 25 years. Contact him at ablum@ajbcomms.com or follow him on Twitter: @ajbcomms

Photo: Screenshot of NY Times piece

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