In May 2019, Boston College student Alexander Urtula jumped to his death from a parking garage in Roxbury, Massachusetts. He had been hours away from graduating. His girlfriend, Inyoung You, was present at the time of his death. She had sent text messages to Urtula to try to stop him.
You, a former Boston College student, was charged later that year with involuntary manslaughter in connection with Urtula’s death. Prosecutors said she has been physically, verbally and psychologically abusive toward Urtula, often encouraging him to die by suicide during their 18-month relationship.
As the tragic story spread swiftly across Massachusetts, communications advisor David Guarino got involved with Urtula’s family, pro bono, to help them navigate the press. They didn’t want the media attention, Guarino recalled. “They wanted their privacy,” he said. “They wanted to mourn in private.”
Himself a former journalist, Guarino was well aware that reporters were trying to do their job in reaching out to the grieving family and giving them an opportunity to share their story. He recommended that they release a statement. Guarino then served as a spokesman for the family, fielding questions and requests from the press on their behalf.
“The media immediately started calling me instead of calling them,” he said, adding that Urtula’s family still had control over whether or not they did any interviews. “The day of that statement, I probably got 500 media phone calls, and that’s just overwhelming for a family that’s going through that level of grief.”
Urtula’s family is not the only family Guarino has helped guide. Because of his work in PR communications, Guarino occasionally found himself in situations where he was asked to help survivors of high-profile tragedies. He said he would provide pro bono assistance to them.
For several years, Guarino had been trying to find out whether there was an organization or government support service out there that specialized in this. He came up empty. So in July 2021, he launched Survivors Say, a nonprofit organization that provides free strategic communications and media support for survivors and their families.
“A lot of times, the families are left to their own devices. They’re in the middle of the worst moments of their lives and suddenly there’s reporters on their front lawn,” Guarino said. “The reporters are doing their job, but the family often either shuts down completely and says ‘We don’t want to speak with you. We don’t want to talk to you. We’re in the middle of grieving. Please leave us alone.’ Or they find some sort of family spokesperson. … But what happens as a result is that it’s never quite what the media wants in terms of covering the story.”
Survivors Say – still in its early stages as a nonprofit – has about 30 volunteers: a blend of former journalists, PR professionals, and people who have served as victim advocates. Guarino said the idea behind it is for this network of volunteers to provide support for families and survivors who are thrust into the spotlight. On the flip side, if a family or someone who has been through a traumatic experience wants to tell their story and isn’t being heard, a Survivors Say volunteer can help them amplify their story.
The organization struck a chord with volunteer Ken Garfield, a freelance writer/editor in Charlotte, North Carolina. The former newspaper journalist who now writes obituaries for everyday people has always been interested in chronicling how people handle loss, tragedy, and grief. That was one reason Garfield said he was interested in volunteering for Survivors Say. He also sees it as a kind of penance after all the times he spent chasing after quotes and information from victims – some of whom wanted to share, but many who didn’t.
Now, Garfield said, he’s able to walk on the other side and help people with that part of their story. “For me, the goal is to help a grieving person tell their story in a way that heals more than hurts,” he said.
Lisa Davis, a former reporter for the Tampa Tribune (a former daily newspaper that was acquired in 2016 by the Poynter-owned Tampa Bay Times) who is now a director of communications at Vistra Communications, a marketing communications and consulting agency, serves as an advisor for the organization. “I covered the cops and courts beats for the better part of my 20-year reporting career,” Davis said in an email. “I always approached survivors delicately and with great empathy. I often wished there was someone to guide them or speak on their behalf when others weren’t as mindful and simply wanted to get the story with no regard to the impact it had to the people in throes of tragedy.”
Davis said she’s begun to seek out other former reporters and PR friends and associates who could help bring Survivors Say to Florida.
“This is a good, unique area that, as far as I know, no one else has ventured into,” said Jason Lefferts, a longtime friend of Guarino and the current director of communications and outreach for the Massachusetts Health Connector. Lefferts serves on the organization’s advisory board. He pointed out that victims or their grieving families probably don’t understand the media and often need guidance.
Nancy Rodriguez, a former reporter and now communications director for the American Constitution Society in Washington, D.C., signed up to be part of one of the Survivors Say working groups. Early in her journalism career, Rodriguez’s family experienced a tragedy when her uncle was murdered. She became the contact person for the press. Looking back on that difficult time, Rodriguez wished she had a resource like Survivors Say.
Rodriguez said that another reason she got involved is that she loves journalism.
“I believe it’s incredibly important to society and to all of us, and so I have that love for journalists and what they do,” she said. “And at the same time, I have this other experience from my personal life, and so I have a lot of heart for those families – and certainly for all those families who I knocked on their door and they were so gracious to let me in and tell me their story. I would love to be able to support both those great loves: the journalists who are doing a job that is laudable and is good for everyone, and then also the families who have lost somebody and have a story to tell and want to share stories about this loved one so they’re not just a name and an age and nothing more than that.”
Pointers for reporters
Poynter asked a few of the volunteers who spoke with us to share tips for journalists assigned to interview a grieving family. Here are a few takeaways:
- Don’t check your heart at the door. Be a human being, said Garfield. “Show compassion. If someone doesn’t want to talk, find another way around that,” he said. “There will always be a deadline. There will always be the need for information. You are serving the public in chasing after news, but as you’re doing it, we’re all human beings on this fragile Earth. We all need to have empathy for the person next to us, especially someone who’s just lost a loved one in a mass shooting, or an airplane crash, or a cop killing.”
- Be patient and leave your business card with contact information, suggested Lefferts. He said that these are people who are dealing with a crisis and, chances are, they haven’t dealt with reporters before. Try not to take it personally if you get a door slammed in your face or if you get called terrible things. Lefferts added that the family may come around and want to share their story later.
- Push the noise of a deadline — and your editor — to the back of your mind, said Rodriguez. “Be present in that moment if they let you in, to listen to what they have to say,” she said. “Listen to what they have to tell you about their loved one.”