• Diane Mulligan, APR

Life Lessons: From Columbine to coronavirus

Updated: Apr 21


I was talking with my 24-year old daughter about her fears during this coronavirus crisis. It is her first experience as an adult during a true crisis. She lives on the east coast; I live in the Rocky Mountains. Her fear seems to come in waves and reminds me of times in my life when I felt completely adrift.


Today, especially, I remember the horror of the Columbine High School shooting 21 years ago. I was the news director at 7News in Denver. I had been in news for more than a dozen years and had certainly seen my share of crisis stories. But the magnitude, the duration and the personal impact I witnessed with Columbine were like nothing I had ever experienced. Since then, I was in NYC on 9/11 and was laid off during the Great Recession. With each crisis, I gained a bit of experience, perspective and actionable knowledge that helps me maintain my composure. News is nothing but crisis and the lessons I learned in the newsroom have helped shape my life. Here is what I shared with my daughter. It seemed to help her, and I hope it will help you.

When you see a crisis looming, get busy and prepare.

It seems like a simple enough statement, but all too often we want to just look away. It is completely normal. Things are usually going well before a crisis. Who wants to think about potential problems? But I have found that when I take the time to prepare and help my clients to prepare and think through negative circumstances, it actually has a positive impact.


Taking action gives a feeling of control that can lead to a sense of peace.


I am not surprised by difficult times and make a point to try and learn through them so that the next time- and there will be a next time- I know I will be even better prepared. It is the surprise of the crisis that throws you completely off and makes you want to run away and hide. For me, times like Columbine, 9/11 and the Great Recession taught me not to run away but to push through. It’s one of the most important lessons of my life. I might hate the situation, but I know I can make it through.


When you are in a crisis, don’t overthink.

I remember sitting in my NYC hotel room with my 7-year-old son and 60-something mother who had just had heart surgery as the planes hit the World Trade Center on 9/11. We had to prioritize our next steps: get cash, get food, get out of Manhattan. Three steps, taken one at a time, gave us some sort of psychological control over our lives, kept us moving, and helped us get somewhere safe.


Years of working in news prepared me to get up and move in a crisis.


It took 5 or 6 hours until we got to safety, but simplifying our actions, taking one step at a time (and if it was the wrong step, staying in the moment and redirecting) got us to safety. We were leaving the hotel room to catch the ferry to New Jersey when I heard that our destination was now the site of the temporary morgue. We turned back, made a few phone calls, and found that we needed to go to the other side of Manhattan to the East River to get on the ferry there. We changed our plans and were on one of the first ferries out of the city.


Planning for the next steps is critical.

As soon as you get your current situation under control, start to plan the next steps.


Look ahead to tomorrow, next week, next month.


For Columbine, it meant bringing mental health professionals into the newsroom, a practice that was not common at the time.



For 9/11 it meant securing a rental car so we could make the drive back to Colorado from New Jersey where we were staying. During the COVID-19 crisis, think about what it will take to get your people back in the office, how can you make them feel safe, what precautions will you take and how will you make them feel welcome. We have all been through a great deal. Now it means thinking about sanitizing and social distancing in the office, helping employees with children at home and thinking about the best working situations for your employees.



Life is full of crises and this won’t be our last. It is during the worst times that we also see the best of humanity, from howling for the healthcare workers every night, to helping our neighbors, to giving what we can to those who are in more desperate circumstances (and you can always find someone who is in a worse situation than you). What will we learn and what will we teach our children and young adults?


It will be hard. It will make you cry. It may even devastate you, but in the end, how it impacts you is your choice. Feel it, hate it, scream at the situation and then push through. Look to tomorrow. Look for the good in this world and plan for better days.


For me, I remember what got me through those awful weeks and months of Columbine in the newsroom, the weeks after 9/11 and the years of the Great Recession: always look for at least one thing that makes you smile every day, know that you are not alone, plan and prepare, and remember that this too shall pass.

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