PR guru offering free media services to tragedy survivors
Q&A with David Guarino of nonprofit Survivors Say
WHEN A HIGH-PROFILE tragedy occurs, the survivors are often barraged by requests for comment from the media. Reporters may struggle to figure out how to contact the surviving family.
Public relations guru David Guarino announced Thursday that he is forming a new nonprofit, Survivors Say, that will provide free communications services to victims of high-profile tragedies.
Guarino is a former newspaper reporter, government spokesperson, and, most recently, a private consultant in the Boston area whose clients include nonprofits, political campaigns, and corporations. Guarino said the project grew out of work he was doing pro bono helping people who need it.
CommonWealth asked Guarino about Survivors Say. Here is an edited version of that conversation.
GUARINO: The goal of the organization is to provide survivors and families of high-profile tragedies with the support they need in their most difficult moment. When there are moments like the Marathon bombing or a mass shooting or any other really awful high-profile tragedy, the survivors and the families are thrust into a world where the media spotlight is on them and they didn’t seek it, they didn’t request it, and they have to try to manage it, while they’re managing significant levels of grief.
I saw it as a reporter when I was the person who had to go knock on somebody’s door after they just lost a loved one to a drunk driving accident or a shooting. And I saw it up close when I was able to try to help some families who were going through these moments.
One of the examples was the LeRocque family of Tewksbury. Rhonda LeRocque was one of those murdered in the Las Vegas mass shooting and through a mutual friend I heard they needed some help. They were trying to manage the media requests that were coming in, and they wanted some privacy. I got in touch with the family and offered to help.
What that looked like right away was reaching out to my friends in the media and saying I’m helping this family out, and if you have any questions let me know. The thing that surprised me most of all was the media was really pleased that I was helping. Reporters don’t like to be the person going up and knocking on the door, they don’t like to be on a front lawn of family when they’re going through this, but they also know they have to do their job and they can’t go back to the newsroom without having tried to tell a full and complete story, and that means reaching out to the family.
The role I was able to play in those moments was as a go-between. Where the media could place their questions and requests for interviews without calling the family and knocking on the door.
Ultimately, the LeRocque family wanted to do a public statement right before Rhonda’s funeral. I worked with the Tewksbury police department to do it at the police station. The media all came, they got what they needed, and they were able to cover the funeral and do so in a respectful manner as the family would want. It was after that I said I really need to formalize this because I think there’s some good that could come of this.
CW: Practically, what will the organization do?
CW: What kind of survivors and incidents are you talking about?
GUARINO: I talk about high-profile tragedies. For better or for worse, there are a lot of things that happen every day that are tragedies that the media doesn’t focus on. Typically, where I think we’ll fit in is there’s something that happens that’s a focus of media attention. Sometimes that’s for a day or half a day in the news cycle, sometimes it’s a matter of weeks.
Another case study on our website is where there was a New Hampshire family whose family member was missing. They were told the FBI was doing a search in Lawrence and probably announcing they found the remains of his body. They wanted to put out a statement, ask the public for help. Through an FBI victim witness advocate, I was connected to this family, and we were able to put out a statement asking for the public’s help in the investigation.
I’d like to say at this point we’re not going to turn anyone away, but as volunteers we can only do what the bandwidth allows.
CW: You’ve worked with survivors before. Why are their needs different than others who need public relations services?
GUARINO: They’re thrust into a very high-profile moment, and cameras and microphones are in front of them when they haven’t sought it out or done anything themselves to seek it out. And they’re at this moment where many of them are going through the worst time of their lives. They’ve just lost a loved one in many cases, and the last thing they want is media attention. They’re grieving, they’re in pain, in anguish. They also understand that the media’s doing its job, and the media is interested and will cover it. They just want the space to grieve privately and to have someone to help them manage it.
Unlike people who are leaders of institutions or politicians or sports figures, they don’t have an apparatus around them to support that typically. The tradition is you see some sort of family spokesperson who comes out. If that works out, great. If they don’t have that or need some guidance, that’s where we can fit in.
The people most pleased when we get involved are the media because they know us, and they know we can help facilitate their request and make sure they don’t miss anything.
CW: If it’s free to survivors, how will your organization be funded?
GUARINO: What we’re really going to need is people’s time. What I’m hoping to build is a network of people like me who are willing to devote time and give it to these families. These tragedies happen quite often but they aren’t in the news for long periods of time. It’s a rather intense period over days, or weeks in a really high-profile tragedy. What I want is for people who are experienced in working with the media and care about this like I do to volunteer their time. Maybe its PR firms in the area.
We are also taking donations to cover the overhead of running a nonprofit. But really at the core, this is a service. This is something that those of us who have built these skills of working in and around the media for 25 years can put them to good use and help people when they most need it.
CW: How big an organization will it be?
GUARINO: Right now it’s me. It’s an unpaid staff of one.
When the idea hit me, I thought there must be an organization that does this, I can help them out. I did some research, talked to some people who work in the victim and survivor support field, and they said there’s a lot of services out there to help families and victims when there is a tragedy. There’s social workers and mental health workers who volunteer their time, but there’s nothing quite like this.
They said to me the biggest problem we might face is there’s too much need, your phone’s going to ring off the hook. I said that sounds like good reason to create a nonprofit.
Based on responses I received today [Thursday], between 20 and 30 people who work in this world said sign me up. We’re starting in Massachusetts. But I’ve already heard from people out of state saying I’m willing to help here, what can we do to make this a broader national effort?CW: Are you aware of anything else like this in the US?
GUARINO: Not that I’ve found. If someone else is doing this, I’ll gladly try to find ways to team up and double our efforts, but I haven’t seen it.