Media Learns of Boy’s Tragic Death Before Family is Notified: A Lesson in Crisis Communications

As a former journalist, I’ve seen a lot of heartbreaking things in my lifetime…gut-wrenching, tragic things that have rocked me to my very core.

What I witnessed May 18th ranks as one of the absolute worst.

My Facebook feed alerted me to a terrible situation involving missing six-year old Kingston Frazier from Jackson, Mississippi.  Police say his mom made a late-night stop at a grocery store and left her sleeping son in the car, parked, with the motor running. That’s when someone hopped into the car and drove off.  Police say an accomplice followed them in a separate car.

In my heart, I just knew he’d be okay.  All the thieves had to do was drop him off at a gas station.  Why not let him go and call it a day?

As I scrolled through my Facebook feed for updates, I was first relieved to learn the boy had been found. But that relief turned into grief, shock and anger when the Jackson Police Department (JPD) later announced the boy was found murdered.

I continued to check my Facebook feed for updates, and I came across a live news conference hosted by the JPD.  The live stream was coming from the Facebook pages of multiple Jackson media outlets. (I decided not to add a link of the live stream due to the nature of the video).  With hurt in his eyes, a JPD spokesperson sadly announced that little Kingston was found dead.  He had been shot.

About halfway through the news conference, several cars arrived behind the podium.  Officers looked alarmed as people frantically rushed from the vehicle and approached them.  A man in visible distress begged officers for an update.  To my absolute horror, I finally figured out these were Kingston’s family members.  They did not know Kingston was already gone.

All of this was happening live.

Soon, I heard terrible shrieks of grief.  I saw devastated family members crying in unbelievable pain.  I should have turned it off.  But I didn’t.

I could feel a sense of discomfort oozing from reporters and photographers alike.  As journalists, we are trained to keep the cameras rolling no matter what.  It’s in our DNA.

But this…….this was beyond anything I’d ever seen.

Just when I thought this live, unspeakable chaos couldn’t get any worse, I saw Kingston’s bereaved father asking police, “Can I see my son?”

It was too much.

I learned a lot about crisis communications when studying for my Accreditation in Public Relations.  One of the most important things to do in a crisis is to define your audience.  Who is the most important audience in this situation?  First and foremost, the department should inform its internal audience, meaning, the police chief, assistant police chief, public information officer (PIO), and those directly involved in the crisis.  Keeping your staff fully up to date prevents false stories or rumors from leaking to the public.  Once the internal audience has been briefed, the number one external audience should be Kingston’s family.  Not one single peep should have been uttered to the media before notifying Kingston’s loved ones of his tragic death.  Think about it.  Many of us knew about Kingston’s fate before his own father.

That’s a shame.

I do not know if the Jackson Police Department has a crisis communication plan, which is designed to effectively control the flow of sensitive information while minimizing mistakes during a crisis.  You can learn more about crisis management here.

For the record, I am NOT knocking JPD.  This was a communication mistake involving a very emotional case.  I believe with every fiber of my being that police thought the family had already been informed.  I saw the pain in the eyes of the officers as they struggled to get the words out.  I’m sure these officers went home and hugged their kids tightly.  No doubt, this was a hard one, and will stick with them forever.

I can give JPD a pass, but I can’t give myself a pass.  Why?  I’m the reason stuff like this goes live on Facebook.  Not me individually.  But all of us.  We clicked.  We watched.  We didn’t turn it off.  Shame on us.  Shame on me.

Thankfully, many of the news organization that live-streamed the press conference have now removed the sensitive part. I don’t think it was the media’s intention to exploit a family.  The age of social media and live streams has changed the game….for all of us. That’s why penning a crisis communication plan is so necessary.

The take-away?

  • Develop a crisis communication plan
  • Protect the flow of information. This includes preventing rumors.
  • Avoid inappropriate and exploitative clickbait. (Give grieving family members privacy)

My thoughts and prayers go out to the family of Kingston Frazier, members of the Jackson Police Department, and all of those affected by this unspeakable tragedy. If you’d like to make a donation to Kingston’s family,  you can do so at any Trustmark National Bank.  There is also a Go Fund Me campaign in Kingston’s honor.

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