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Public Affairs during a crisis

  • Published
  • By Derek Kaufman
  • 88th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
In the span of a few brief seconds on April 15, innocent lives were tragically ended and others forever changed by the terrorist bombings at the Boston Marathon. Even as federal, state and local authorities cooperatively work to piece together evidence to determine how this could have happened, why and who is responsible, I am reminded that this could have occurred at any number of sporting events or similar "soft targets" across the country.

Whatever the motivations were by those responsible, terrible events such as this only serve to unite the resolve of Americans to fight terrorism and end senseless violence. The public and news media are justifiably outraged that anyone would perpetrate such horrific acts. They want answers and they want them now. We all do.

As a former Air Force Public Affairs Officer and now civilian PA specialist at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, I've found it illustrative to see the very deliberate and careful release of official information on the event. I'm reminded that if we ever have an attack take place here, or a major aircraft accident, or natural disaster affecting Air Force people or resources, we would handle the release of information quite similarly.

In all cases, the Air Force would endeavor maximum release of information with minimum delay. However, especially in an emergency situation, it is critical that information released is confirmed to be accurate, that it doesn't speculate about causes or other details that later may turn out to be completely wrong, that it protects personal information of those who are very seriously injured or killed, and that it does not release sensitive, classified information.

There are well established reasons for these restrictions. You can imagine how release of the names of casualties to the public or media before next of kin are notified could greatly magnify the pain their families experience. Similarly, certain law enforcement sensitive information or intelligence may not immediately be made available to the public. Media access to an incident site may temporarily be restricted while exposed classified information is covered. Releasing inaccurate information about a hazardous substance could cause panic, or otherwise impede local, life-saving actions like shelter in place or evacuations from taking place.

At any incident site, only two Air Force people are authoritative sources of information: the on-scene incident commander and the public affairs representative. Others are there to perform specific functions, and they report to the incident commander. First responders are busy fighting fires, treating the injured, securing the scene, mitigating environmental impacts and so on.

Expert spokespersons like police and firefighters should not be approached as they are actively engaged in managing the emergency. They, along with other "eye witnesses" may only have access to very limited information on the overall situation. Media who approach them may learn of details that are taken out of context, based upon hearsay or speculation, or information that has changed. Public Affairs will make the incident commander available for interviews, as soon as it is practical to do so.

Public Affairs will make every attempt to get as many facts as we can in our first news releases, answering the "what", "where" and "when." We normally won't be able to provide the "why," and the "who" may take some time. In the case of an aircraft accident, we will release known facts about the aircraft and its mission, but it may take months to determine the cause, and only a formal investigation board is qualified to do this. We will follow-up and release more details when they are confirmed.

On- or off-base, incident areas will likely be cordoned off to prevent public and media access. This is not just to enable first responders to do their urgent work, but also to protect the public from hazards, and preserve evidence for the investigation.

A News Media Center will be established near the scene with Air Force and other participating government agencies to provide periodic media briefings and release important information to the public when it becomes available.

Every crisis will bring 24x7 news media scrutiny and thirst for information. Especially in the early stages, there will be many more questions than answers. Intense media competition to fill the vacuum will frequently result in published news reports from unofficial sources that later turn out to be unproven.

We created a printable tri-fold for first responders, news media, and others with even more details on Air Force emergency response procedures and the release of information. You can access it from our public website at

We will always tell the truth. But we may not be able to tell it all and tell it now, even though we want to, for very good reasons.