I suspect that when Larry G. Hincker joined Virginia Tech in 1989 he never conceived of the possibility that he would one day be the spokesperson for the deadliest campus shooting in the history of the United States.
Yet, as many professionals have had to do over the years, Hincker stepped to the plate in April 2007 and carried a heavy burden.
More than 400 media worldwide descended on that campus and students, faculty, staff, alumni and families had to be dealt with as efficiently and effectively as possible under the most trying of circumstances.
Hincker, associate vice president of the Office of University Relations, did a number of things well and some things could have been done better.
This column looks at both sides of the assessment and makes some observations.
You must know your audiences
We assess Hincker did a better than average job at understanding all his audiences.
Seemingly, Hincker assessed his target audiences as the students, the faculty, staff, parents, alumni, and his neighbors the people in the region. Although at times apparently working through shock and not really knowing what all he had to do, he did for the most part still understand the need to get accurate information to these audiences and worked toward informing them as best he could.
The program at Va. Tech functioned better than average probably because of the different mediums available to them to communicate to the targeted audiences. The university used e-mail, surface mail, their publications and their web site most effectively.
The web site http://www.vt.edu/ provided a 24/7 immediate way for anyone to connect to the university during the crisis.
Planning provided foundation
The Va. Tech pre-planning for a crisis saved lots of time and allowed for an effective implementation. The plan appeared to have been resilient and Hincker notes that the ” the simpler the plan the better” speaking to reporter Dr. Frances Ward-Johnson APR in PRSA The Strategist (Summer 2007).
However, Hincker is quick to note that a plan is essential. It is obvious that no organization could possibly be prepared to handle the extensive media attention that Va. Tech had during this time without a plan.
The old adage “expect the unexpected always” served the university well.
Va. Tech’s plan provided the framework for decision making, for example, although they had planned for a media center in the event of a crisis the center was not sufficient in size to handle the 400 plus journalists and their equipment.
However, the plan forced them to consider alternatives and make decisions to handle the situation expeditiously.
You and your senior management must be prepared for the media sensationalism that will always occur.
Although Virginia Tech had its share of sensational media coverage, which is to be expected in any situation such as this, overall the media seemed to work well with the university and assisted in some cases I believe in getting their messages out quickly.
When the media is willing to assist your senior management in setting up and doing press conferences then you have a major advantage.
As a crisis communications’ consultant, here are some observations we have:
- Hincker did a commendable job under very difficult circumstances and although he may have deviated from some of the standard approaches to crisis communications at times overall we would give him a solid “B” for his performance.
- Daily organization of information and keeping up-to-date during such a crisis is a major challenge for the spokesperson under any circumstances. The relationships the spokesperson has with the crisis managers is critical and those relationships must be established prior to the crisis.
- Hincker brought in experts when available and needed. He knew the extent of his expertise and did not speculate or pontificate to any degree we can assess.
- He understood that journalists, students, families, faculty and staff were as shocked as he and all the others at Va. Tech were at the carnage and situation. His empathy with these folks, and especially the journalists’ job and their coverage, helped establish needed rapport.
- Hincker understood the need to establish boundaries for the media. His posting of signs to “please respect their grieving process and to not go beyond these doors” was the right thing to do. For the most part the media respected it.
- Va. Tech’s use of their web site and the tie Hincker had with that staff to keep information updated was well executed because they used a “light site” based on previous experiences with crisis’s on campus.
- Va. Tech was behind the curve on getting their text messaging system in place. Although they had a new system that would have effectively used text messaging it was not yet on line when this crisis occurred.
- Hincker knew intuitively when to end the crisis and the ensuing press conferences and did so appropriately. The media agreed with his assessment.
- Hincker understood the need to accommodate the media. He provided them places to sleep in the media center and food and coffee.
- The university understood the importance of accepting pro bono assistance from the services of a local public relations firm.
- Finally, Hincker is very clear that he will not allow his university to be defined by this singular horrific event. He is now turning his attention to repositioning the image of the university back to the important aspects of Virginia Tech.
Larry Hincker’s professionalism and performance was exceptional under the most horrific and trying of circumstances. We commend him and are honored to have him as a member of our profession.
Until next time.