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Code Red: When the ‘Biggest Story in the World’ Unfolds in Your Lobby


July 17, 2013

It was a week that Jerry Berger and many others will never forget.

On April 15, Berger, director of media relations at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, was on a train from New York City back home to Boston when he heard the news about the deadly bombings at the finish line of the 116th annual Boston Marathon. He rushed to the hospital and worked around the clock in the days that followed.

He was faced with a situation that was unprecedented in his nearly 12 years at the hospital: Out of the reported 264 people injured in the bombings, 24 were rushed to the Beth Israel Deaconess emergency room.

The crisis escalated on Friday, April 19, at 12:30 a.m., when Berger received his first page from the hospital, alerting participants on the emergency management team about a potential situation.

At 3 a.m., management beckoned him to the office. Berger instinctively realized what was happening: Authorities had suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev in custody and they were en route to Beth Israel. He died 15 minutes after arrival.

However, “things really got crazy” later that night, Berger said, when police took the second suspect, Tamerlan’s brother, Dzhokhar, into custody. The authorities also brought him to the hospital’s emergency center.

Almost immediately, Berger said the “satellite farm” of media outside Beth Israel grew into a massive encampment, with frenzied reporters looking for any piece of new information. Berger referred to it as “the biggest story in the world” at the time.

Since their offices were located almost a mile away from the hospital, the communications team set up shop in the West Clinical Center lobby through the weekend, charging their iPhones in nearby outlets to keep up with media inquiries. He said that his staff worked “23-hour days,” with help from an outside PR agency.

While the hospital was limited in what it could communicate during the crisis, the PR team used Facebook and Twitter to update the public with information on accessing the hospital and rescheduling appointments during the crisis. Many community members posted words of encouragement to the victims and showed their support of the hospital staff via social media.

For the Beth Israel Deaconess communications team, Berger said that the work environment only started to feel normal again after the hospital discharged the last patient on June 2 — and he’s still fielding questions related to the bombings.

Recently, The Strategist visited the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and spoke with Berger in the lobby that served as the communications command center during these events. Here, Berger, who previously served as the Massachusetts Statehouse Bureau Chief for United Press International and later as spokesperson for the Massachusetts Senate Committee on Ways & Means, offers an inside look back at the tumultuous time for the hospital and the city of Boston.

On designating communications priorities:

We first had to manage the massive amount of media requests that we received. Over the course of the time that we were involved, we had more than 1,000 media inquiries. 

I was in New York City at the time [of the bombing] and received three inquiries while sitting in Penn Station. I was fielding a lot of emails and phone calls while coming up on the train.

The Medical Center went into lockdown that afternoon, so at least the perimeter in terms of media presence was controlled.

On managing the media:

There weren’t a lot of talking points. You just sort of react in the moment.

You’re trying to get a handle on the total number of people you have and their conditions, which is always [challenging] given the HIPAA privacy laws. All you’re allowed to divulge is a total number and a breakdown of conditions. For example, initially, we had 24 patients — seven of whom were critical. And you just keep repeating that.

That was sufficient in the beginning, but as the days went on, we were getting requests to talk to patients, which, in the initial phases, we declined. We had a policy, which we have reverted to, that we will not do media interviews with patients while they’re in-house. They’re free to do whatever they want when they leave.

Given the circumstance and the intensity of the inquiries, we waived the policy. But a lot of the patients obviously did not want to talk while they were dealing with the trauma — both physical and emotional.

On responding to the escalating situation:

Things got a little more interesting for us late Thursday night [April 18] during the shootout in Watertown, Mass. In the end, [the Medical Center] got both suspects [as patients]. [Tamerlan Tsarnaev] was brought into our emergency department at 1:20 in the morning, and passed away 15 minutes later. We held an early-morning news conference just to make it official.  Despite the hour and short notice, we had a good turnout, because obviously there was intense media interest.

There was a [media] contingent in Copley Square near the bombing site, and we also had some crews here. But once we got Suspect Number 1, the “satellite farm” — as I’ve been calling it — grew. We had tents set up and parked across the way, a lot of live shots and heavy demand for interviews.

Things changed drastically at that point because the city was then put in lockdown — and so we really couldn’t accommodate anyone. I don’t recall that there was a lot of volume of phone calls at the time; most of the press was following the police.

The lockdown was lifted somewhere around 4 o’clock, even before they caught Suspect Number 2 [Dzhokhar Tsarnaev]. I was able to get home for a couple of hours, and then I was called back in. It turned out we were getting Suspect Number 2 as well.

That changed things from a media perspective because, all of a sudden, we were limited. We were working closely with the FBI and other federal authorities, and the standard answer basically became: “I’m sorry, I can’t comment on an ongoing federal investigation.”

We did a once-a-day condition report on Suspect Number 2, which we gave to the FBI and we [retweeted]. Other than that, we were fielding calls and saying, “Sorry, there’s really nothing we can say.”

On preparing for a crisis:

We have an extensive emergency management plan in place. We conduct a lot of crisis drills. So we were prepared in that sense. But in the heat of the moment, you sometimes forget things.

If there’s one lesson I’ve learned, it’s that paper is not dead. I was left working with an iPhone, so the list of numbers that were available to me were what was in the phone or in my head.

If I had to do it over again, then I would print out all the numbers. Paper helps. It seems like an alien concept right now, but it does make a difference. That’s probably one of the strongest lessons.

The other realization was that it’s an all-hands-on-deck situation, and you’ve just got to be coordinated and have the staff that’s needed to get it done. 

 

Kyra Auffermann is the digital content editor for Tactics. She oversees PRSA’s daily Issues & Trends e-newsletter. She is a Boston College graduate.
Email: kyra.auffermann at prsa.org



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