After Her Brother's Death in Iraq Became News, a PR Strategist Learned Firsthand Why the Way We Tell Stories Matters — and It Changed Her Career Ami Neiberger, a communications strategist and media-relations expert for more than 20 years, says there's a "fine line to walk" when it comes to sharing our most vulnerable moments.
With more than two decades of experience as a communications strategist and media-relations expert under her belt, Ami Neiberger knows what it takes to tell a story the right way. Today, she owns and runs Maple Avenue PR, a firm helping nonprofit organizations, trade associations, government agencies and small businesses improve their communication.
But the journey Neiberger took to get where she is now was a difficult one. In 2007, having started her own public-relations firm a few years prior, she found herself navigating the complexity of media attention intertwined with tragedy after her 22-year-old brother Christopher was killed in the line of duty in Iraq.
Neiberger, the oldest of four, was on a beach vacation in Georgia when her aunt told her the news over the phone. "I actually dropped the phone and started screaming," Neiberger recalls.
A whirlwind followed. A funeral was held in Florida. Then the family flew to Washington D.C. for Christopher's burial at Arlington National Cemetery. One day later, Neiberger's husband had emergency surgery for a condition that could have killed him — on the couple's wedding anniversary.
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Over the course of the chaotic 10 days that followed her brother's death, Neiberger also fielded inquiries from the press. "My brother died at the height of the troop surge in Iraq at the time — so it was news," she explains. "And it occurred in August when there's not a lot of other news going on, so it was bigger news than it might have been at another time of year."
A soldier's death is news to other people, but Christopher was her little brother, and with more than a decade between them, she'd held him when he was a baby and gotten him up for school. "[He] liked to play jokes on people and could be a really deep thinker," she says. "He was an amazing person."
Neiberger notes that media attention in such situations "can be very overwhelming." But her family consented to media coverage when Christopher was buried at Arlington.
"They weren't going to be in our faces asking questions," Neiberger says. "They're just allowed to film and take photos at a distance. We wanted people back home to see how this young man who grew up in our community was being honored by his country for what he gave. And for the sacrifice he made."
"Even though some of these things have occurred in my life, I still do great work. I'm still a great PR person."
In the aftermath of her brother's death, Neiberger had to figure out how to carry on in all aspects of life — including her business. Many clients thought she was still on vacation, but others had seen the announcement of Christopher's death in The New York Times. "That level of distress became a lot for them to handle," she says, "and it just became very quiet."
But Neiberger resolved to get back to work despite the quiet, figuring that, at the very least, she could start with responding to proposals. She didn't think much would come of it — but it did. She landed a couple of them, one of which turned into a large job that lasted many years.
Another thing that helped Neiberger pick up the pieces? Taking a look at her supportive friends and clients, and being sure to communicate: "Hey, even though some of these things have occurred in my life, I still do great work. I'm still a great PR person."
Neiberger had already done a lot of nonprofit work, but Christopher's death did change the course of her practice. She connected with more organizations that supported military families, Gold Star families and veterans, and began working with the Tragedy Assistance Programs for Survivors (TAPS), which supports grieving military families.
Neiberger's done work for the National Military Family Bereavement Study and the National Veterans Legal Services Program, which has been a client of hers since 2008.
Additionally, she testified before Congress a few times on management at Arlington National Cemetery. She also helped lead responses to the Arlington National Cemetery scandal and the Fort Hood and Navy Yard shootings.
Neiberger works with the Memorial Day Flowers Foundation as well. The organization, which gathers volunteers to hand out flowers for placement at Arlington National Cemetery and other cemeteries across the country, is short flowers this year, Neiberger says — they have about 80,000 flowers for their Arlington tribute and would need 310,000 to honor every gravesite. You can donate here and volunteer here.
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"The rest of America goes to the beach, [but for me], Memorial Day really changed in its meaning."
Neiberger continues working on some veterans issues today, like the flowers project, though not with "the level of intensity" she did in the immediate aftermath of her brother's death. The general nature of her work has also changed, in part due to the pandemic.
"I'm not in D.C. as often anymore as I used to be," Neiberger says. "Some of that's also by design. I try to work from home a lot. I only go into the city once in a while now, not every week, one or two days a week. It's just a different pace of life that I'm at right now."
Neiberger's also joined a women's co-working space, AWL Creative, noting it's nice to learn about other women's businesses and think about how to grow hers in new ways, and is working on a couple of books, alongside her consulting work. "Life is good and busy," she says.
For more than 15 years, Neiberger has been on media call, working over Memorial Day weekend. "The rest of America goes to the beach," she says, "[but for me], Memorial Day really changed in its meaning."
Neiberger usually spends her Memorial Days at Arlington in Section 60, where Christopher's buried, with some of the other families.
"My brother died a little over 15 years ago now," Neiberger says, "and there are times that it's still challenging, where just a song can come on the radio or something will happen, and it suddenly feels just like it did before. There's always going to be that sense of loss there. I think what changes is our ability to manage it and navigate it, where it doesn't knock me off my feet as easily as it did early on."
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Arlington's Section 60 garners a lot of public attention because it's where the Iraq and Afghanistan gravesites are; as a result, it's not uncommon for CNN to be set up filming all day on Memorial Day, Neiberger says.
"There's a piece of me that's really grateful that people remember," Neiberger says, "but at the same time, there's a piece of it that can be incredibly intrusive."
There's a "fine line to walk" in how such sensitive moments are depicted, she adds. But covering them in a respectful way can also bring a sense of peace.
"If a family chooses to allow press coverage or photography, that's a way to share that experience and how that person is being honored by their country with the community back home," Neiberger says. "For our family, that was important. I had a sense too when everything happened that you only get a very narrow window of time to talk about the legacy that your loved one is leaving."