PR and Tragedy: How to Proceed?

Confusion often reigns in the wake of tragedy, and so it goes following the apparent suicide of Hollywood action director Tony Scott.

The narrative in this particular case has been all over the place. Less than two days after the fact, conflicting reports and big questions dominate the headlines: Did Scott leave notes in his car, his office, or both? Did he leave a list of people to be notified of his death?

Most puzzlingly: Why did he jump from the bridge while in the midst of working on several big-name projects, most prominently the A&E mini-series “Coma” and a reported sequel to his biggest movie, “Top Gun?” Was he motivated by a diagnosis of “inoperable brain cancer?” If he was cancer-free with no major health problems as his family now claims, then how did this story find its way into the press? Who is responsible for shaping the public narrative?

Scott was a successful studio director with easy access to more than his share of big PR names, and we have to wonder whether they were in any way trained to respond to just such a horrible tragedy. Simon Halls, an industry veteran who works as a personal representative for both Scott and his brother Ridley, could only say that “he did not know what issues might have contributed to Mr. Scott’s death” and made no further public comment beyond requesting privacy for the director’s family.

We’d like to view this tragedy objectively from a PR perspective. Scott was a famous man who chose to end his life in a very public place, and observers are now apparently offering to sell cellphone videos of his jump to the highest bidder–so someone will spend a good deal of time and money dealing with the aftermath of his death.

We wonder: What is the most appropriate way to proceed in such cases? As a PR professional, have you been trained to react in certain ways when tragedy strikes? What new responsibilities do you assume when the unthinkable occurs?

How would you proceed in this situation?