In a mid-December day in 2012, reporters were calling Paul Vance with increasingly urgent, specific questions about a possible school shooting.
Vance, then a lieutenant and chief public information officer for the Connecticut State Police, checked his agency sources, was told there was no knowledge of an incident and relayed it to the reporters. A few calls later, however, his agency would inform him that there was an active shooter at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. That day, the world would learn that a gunman had murdered 20 school children and six educators. Media from as far away as Japan would arrive in the town of 28,000.
Vance, the official designated spokesman for the tragedy, was the only one authorized to speak about it in the immediate aftermath. He recently shared his experiences and lessons during a joint training session of the Municipal Association and the Public Relations Society of America's South Carolina chapter.
These are among the lessons he shared:
Keep a steady demeanor
As a public official, be aware that your facial expression can be photographed or filmed at any moment during or after a public event and then published out of context. That means joking, laughing and smiling at the site of the tragedy and public events — even just three minutes out of a 14-hour day of grimness — may be captured and disseminated, sending a damaging message.
During press conferences, Vance emphasized "consistency, timeliness and accuracy" as his goals. "You don't want to change any voice inflection or descriptive adjectives or anything to cause the media or the press to try to get a different (sound) bite on the situation," he said.
Work with the media
Establish a respectful, professional relationship with reporters, and work proactively to do so before any tragedy occurs.
"I can't stress how important that was," said Vance, who retired in 2017 after serving in the Connecticut State Police for 42 years. "Did I love them? No, I didn't. Did I make sure I got along with them all? Yes. Did I make sure I treated them all equally? Always."
If there has been a mass-casualty event, set rules to shield the families
Vance said all 26 victims' families said that they did not want to be interviewed by the media, so he conveyed their wishes to the reporters.
"We thought we'd have to keep the press away. The press really didn't bother (families)," said Vance, adding that there was only one notable exception — a photographer went against Vance's instructions and approached a house where one child had been killed and the child's sibling had survived.
Manage the elected officials
Organize the politicians. To make the most efficient use of time, let them know it's unnecessary for each elected official to step to the podium to echo the previous one's sentiments. Vance arranged the elected officials in a semicircle for a public show of support, while the governor and the town's first selectman, the town's chief executive official, addressed the public.
"It made no sense for every single one of them to say the same thing," said Vance. "They were appreciative."
Expect a curveball
In Newtown, that curveball was a presidential visit. President Barack Obama was coming to Newtown to comfort the victims' families and support the first responders.
"To meet them was the most important thing, and I saw the man hugging little kids, sitting on the floor with little kids, talking to families and spending as much time as they wanted to spend with the president of the United States," said Vance.
But the visit from the commander in chief created new security and communication concerns, said Vance. Newtown already had investigators, detectives and state troopers at the scene who were working around the clock. Officials then had to coordinate with the Secret Service, starting with securely transporting the president to Newton from the Hartford airport 40 minutes away.
But despite the extra safety concerns, securing highway exits and bridges and managing the already large media presence that had gathered in the small city, Vance said officials smoothly incorporated the presidential visit into the overall public response to the massacre.
Emphasizing that he was making no statement on politics, Vance said of President Obama: "I respect the man immensely for what he did to benefit those families."