A Multi-Part Series: Part 1 – An Analysis of the Virginia Tech Crisis — Observations and Recommendations

The deadliest campus shooting in U.S. history occurred this past April.

Students, faculty and staff at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University watched in horror and disbelief on April 16th as Seung Hui Cho murdered 32 students and faculty members and wounded 25 others before killing himself. The tragedy occurred five days short of the anniversary of the massacre at Columbine High School, previously the largest massacre on a campus.

The media and public response was extensive. What made the Virginia Tech’s Public Relations Director’s job even more challenging was that the majority of the students were killed and wounded two hours after Hui Cho had killed two other people on campus.

When a crisis such as the one at Virginia Tech occurs, at the time of the crisis and during it is not the time to be thinking about a crisis plan. During such events a well-thought-out, resilient and flexible plan is critical to survive. Communications must be quick and through multiple channels, and as we will see the channels of communications vary form organization to organization.

I have been asked by numerous colleagues to provide my insights on what went right and what went wrong at Virginia Tech that day because of my background in crisis management.

However, until now I have held back my opinion because I felt that school officials and the task force set up to review the incident deserved time to do a thorough analysis of the entire situation without doing so as many pundits have. Therefore, I chose to not comment during the crisis or immediate following it, although many of my colleagues opted to comment and I respect their decision.

Now, that the task force has completed its work and the media piranhas have moved on to other fodder, I am providing these insights to my colleagues and clients. Hopefully, you will read some thoughts here that may challenge you to review and revamp your own crisis plan.

“Feeding the Bears”

Virginia Tech attempted to be transparent and open by having a number of press briefings as the event unfolded.

In fact within hours after the shootings a press briefing attended to by President Charles Steger was held. He addressed, quite capably in most cases, what information he could in a straightforward yet still quite vulnerable manner.

It must be remembered that the President, and everyone on the campus, was dealing with their own personal reaction to this tragedy and that always complicates how well a crisis can be handled.

The university’s communication team, led by Larry G. Hincker, the chief spokesperson attempted to maintain transparency hoping to leave little room for speculation and rumor.

Yet, when you rely on a QA format (never good when you don’t have confirmed information, or new information) for your press briefings, as opposed to simply making a confirming statement about facts, or providing time lines and informational handouts, you expose yourself to criticism from the media, the public and other stakeholders.

Remember you have to “Feed the Bears” as consistently, or at least as often, as you can during a crisis and if they know the feeding schedule and you adhere to it life will be easier for everyone.

Inform the key stakeholders 

Always inform your primary audiences as quickly as possible

The university sought to unite the community and their students by as promptly as possible informing students, their families and the greater community of memorial services to honor the victims and by providing counseling services for the survivors.

However, this was on the back-end of the event.

On the front-end of the crisis students, faculty, staff and the community were not informed adequately and quickly in my estimation of the possible threat. This lack of urgency, driven by the fact that law enforcement speculated that the initial two shootings were the result of a domestic dispute between the shooter and those involved, led to the loss of valuable notification time to other potential victims.

There was an hour between the first shooting and the start of classes where text messaging and e-mail could have been used as one means of informing the audiences. 

It is critical during the crisis management planning process to assess carefully, prioritize and then determine appropriate channels that will allow you to communicate to your primary audiences as quickly as possible during times of a crisis.

My friend and associate Larry Smith, President of the Institute of Crisis Management, Louisville, Ky notes (The Public Relations Strategist, Summer 2007) rightfully so that the first thing to collapse during a crisis are the telephone and computer servers because of the demands placed on them. As usual he is absolutely correct.

Yet, evolving technology and the different communications patterns of the Gen X, Y and Z folks demands that all institutions, especially colleges and universities, assess how best to utilize the systems that these students use to get information.

Text messaging is one of the primary ways that these students communicate these days and technology is now available that can reach all those who wish to be reached by texting, if, and this is a big IF planning and data basing is done in advance.

Potential users of this technology would obviously need to secure telephone numbers in advance and keep it updated — granted this is a daunting task yet one that must be part of the future planning processes.

If you question that texting is becoming the preferred mode of communications, just look at the recent revelations in the killing and wounding of the students in New Jersey. All four students were just minutes prior to their attack, text messaging one another even though they were in close enough proximity and could have talked with one another.

Always maintain control

“In the first few hours of a crisis you have no questions you can answer,” Smith says.

Although well intended, when the president of Virginia Tech opened his first press conference the best he could have done was to read a prepared statement and then notify the media when he would return.

When he opened the floor to questions to the media, he simply had no answers to share. This made him and his staff look as if they were not in control of the situation.  When given openings such as this the media will expect information that you can’t yet deliver.

Never open the floor to questions until you have verifiable information you can share.

Expect the unexpected

When the crisis hits you can be assured that the media will be there. Often times quicker than you could expect and coming from distances and in numbers you never planned to accommodate.

More than 400 outlets worldwide had to be dealt with at Virginia Tech. More importantly, traumatized students, faculty, staff and families all wanted answers quickly.

Plan length is not an indicator of anything

Too many organizations have lengthy, convoluted and hard to follow written crisis plans that they never bother to practice, or even tabletop drill. Get rid of them and start all over!

The length of a plan is irrelevant, what is important is that the plan is workable, do the people that need it have it, and have they been properly trained and consistently drilled and practiced on the plan?

Plans, frankly for the most part are meaningless, because in a real-life, real-world crisis you must be resilient, flexible and have the ability to roll-with-the-flow and most plans are not designed this way.

Planning, practicing and rehearsing plans, however, when done well and with thought forces the people that have to deal with a crisis to consider all their options and how best to organize to handle the crisis when it does occur.

A good plan is simply a road map that gets you started on the right path forward.

I will share additional insights in the next posting.

Until next time.

Dr. Darryl

L. Darryl Armstrong

ARMSTRONG and Associates

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