After Mass Shootings, What’s an Arts Communicator to Do?

Every time I sat down to write this article, I thought I'd have more time.

Photo: on Unsplash.

What is my responsibility after a mass shooting? As a communicator working in the arts, this is something I’ve struggled to answer for years. Every time I sat down to write this article, I thought I’d have more time. And every single time, another shooting happened before I had the guts to write it.

This time — Valentine’s Day, 2018 — it was close to home, Florida. As it was last June when a disgruntled worker shot and killed five of his former colleagues. As it was two summers ago when the Pulse nightclub shooting occurred across the street from my doctor’s office.

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breaking news
Years of looking at twitter during shootings trained me not to retweet every piece of breaking news, as some early accounts are later proved false.

Every single shooting, I catch glimpses of news updates while watching my kids and all of us going about our normal business until the time that the final death toll is announced and the suspect is either in custody or confirmed dead. Each time, what used to mean days of op-eds and reports on gun legislation have turned into simply a Facebook post here or there if you happened to catch it, and maybe a handful of people who are more diligent. We all have the same charts and statistics to move around; we all hear the same outspoken commentators venting their anger and going viral in liberal circles. When two were killed and 16 wounded at Kentucky High School, many media outlets pointed out that in the first 23 days of 2018, we’d already experienced 11 school shootings.

While I have no real words to describe what I’m feeling, I find some way to respond on my personal social media page. I, like others, try to say something meaningful and useful, but I usually just echo past Facebook posts. The cycle of outrage isn’t outrageous anymore; it’s America in a still-early 2018. Even as I write this, I’m well aware of how many times I have read other pieces offering roughly the same sentiment.

outrage cycle
Credit unknown, unless you can decipher the signature.

It is in my professional life that these moments cause more struggle. I am not a visual artist investigating this topic through my art. I am a writer and communications cirector. I express myself through the written word and primarily through digital channels. When school shootings were rare, all social media stopped, especially in the nonprofit world. Communications colleagues sneered at those who were over-automated and forgot to turn off posts that were already scheduled; it was uncouth to make sales calls-to-action after such dreadful news. When a deadly shooting was still shocking, your silence equaled respect. Some might eke out the now-meaningless phrase “thoughts and prayers” for acknowledgment, but stay neutral as a brand. “Thoughts and prayers” is now a toxic phrase, except for those on such emotional autopilot that they don’t have to remember how greed and ambition kills children.

After school shootings, what is a nonprofit’s role in the conversation that follows? What can a professional communicator — specifically a communicator for an arts organization — actually do?

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Priya Krishnakumar, a visual data journalist for the LA Times, has chronicled the 290-plus school shootings since Sandy Hook. It was somewhere around the third shooting, post-Sandy Hook, that I added a section in my social media manuals and calendars detailing a protocol following a school shooting, and adjusting those steps slightly for other kinds of shootings that made national news.

The protocol slowly evolved from silence and reverence until such a time as it didn’t make us sick to discuss our theater’s productions again, to a truly inward look at how this plague upon America and its citizens does relate to our mission and what we should say about it. Staying silent no longer felt right. For one nonprofit where I work that specifically aims to tell hard stories onstage and not to coddle children with our plays, it especially felt wrong to merely acknowledge this time in our country. I was compelled to find some way to make a dent in the desperate outrage that I knew our readers were feeling — as I was.

It forced me to really investigate our mission. News of that day’s shooting froze me in my tracks — I think it was in 2014 — as I understood it would just be part of our lives now. I wanted desperately to say something to our audience, to offer both parents and educators something with hope and value. I finally found it during my endless scrolling through Twitter for clues as to how to process the new reality and what to do beyond retweeting my outrage.

school hallway
Photo: Pexels.

I found a resource for talking to children about school shootings. It made perfect sense within our mission, and I immediately shared it. For another nonprofit, like a private school where I used to work, I would have gone through the proper channels to get it approved first. This theater, on the other hand, gives me great flexibility, and I felt very strongly that our audience needed to hear this information right away. I collected more resources and shared them throughout the day as a way to help our readers feel a little more in control, and to understand that they can open up the discussion with their children in an age-appropriate fashion. It gave me small solace at the time and encouraged more research so that now I have these resources easily on hand.

Unfortunately, I pull out these resources too often. Yesterday I had a newsletter ready to go out to almost 6,000 people regarding empathy and our next show, and we took a full day to change the surrounding material and in order to respond to what happened at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. Ultimately, we removed the teaser for  our next show because it just wasn’t relevant in the context of talking to your kids about shootings and building empathy through art. It felt awkward, even as a coda.

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toy gun
Parent groups constantly share ideas on how to handle their children playing guns. Photo: Matthias Zomer from Pexels.

I started digging a little deeper, to look at the psychology and usefulness of active-shooter drills. Since that is now added to the situations that schools must prepare to handle, it seems relevant to our audience of teachers and parents. Then, in my recent research on coded language, I learned the term “active shooter” is a narrative that aids the pro-gun lobby, as its urgency could encourage people to want to arm themselves. Until I work through the complexity of that, I’m looking at what else we can share that is mission-related and valuable to our readers. Personal accounts from teachers and students in our communities? Local parent groups encouraging debate on gun legislation at the very least? Should I share how parents feel about the new drills and how they talk to their children about it? A few shootings ago, I fell into the trap of sharing a post about mental illness, when only 3% to 5% of all violence can be attributed to mental illness.

Does it make sense for me to share the link between domestic violence and gun violence on my arts organization’s page? I’d say that’s a stretch — unless we have programs or a show specifically about domestic violence.

But, I constantly wonder, is that really a stretch? Or am I judging my communications standards by a pre-Sandy Hook protocol? Do we share how Scientific American, using hard numbers, debunked the myth that gun ownership keeps you safe? The magazine’s very name could turn off many people not open to gun legislation in some form or another. Do we dare wade into that debate in a public forum? How can I post about potential underlying causes of gun violence when I am not an expert? May it open the gate for the organization to be attacked for misinformation? Mere hours after I posted the widely reported news that the number of school shootings in 2018 is now up to 18, I learned that the actual number of shootings is debatable, based on your criteria.

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gun show
Vin Shambry in E.M. Lewis’ touring production of “The Gun Show” directed by Shawn Lee. Photo: Owen Carey Photography.

Perhaps we could share information about plays and other art that tackle this subject. The only play I know asking “Can we have a conversation about this?” is E.M. Lewis’ The Gun Show. (Please, enlighten me in your comments.) I sat in the audience at Moving Arts in LA when it premiered, a space smaller than my first dorm room, and listened closely opening my mind to these stories. I left with a page of the script in my hand, thinking about it many times as these online debates have raged.

Posting about that show wouldn’t necessarily be on brand, as we rarely tackle one-person shows and we haven’t yet had gun ownership as a major storyline. Or would it be? What I am saying is it’s time to revisit that communications protocol that I wrote back in 2014. It’s time to go somehow beyond just talking to children about school shootings, beyond how to prepare them for the potential of one. It’s time to get bolder. Yet I don’t know exactly how.

So here I am — open to suggestion, to a conversation. How does your nonprofit and/or arts organization speak about current events? If you are in communications, how responsible do you feel to respond to this warped reality we call 2018? Tell me below.