Interviews: Jeffrey Douglas and Michael Sutphin

Jeffrey Douglas is the communications director of Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech University. He spoke with Mike Bush about the university's media response and crisis plan.

Jeffrey Douglas is the communications director of Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech University. He spoke with Mike Bush about the university's media response and crisis plan.

What was the university's first reaction?

Jeffrey Douglas: In the earliest moments of the crisis while our president and leadership team were trying to get their arms around what was happening, the media were just pouring in. And the few of us that were there did the best we could to triage this massive influx of reporters, satellite trucks, and producers. I was stunned at the speed with which the media descended upon this place. Katie Couric was already here by the early evening. It was instant.

The very earliest unfolding moments of the media side of this tragedy were managed by just a few of us on site and we had the first major press event late Monday afternoon. That evening, by midnight we were making final arrangements for pool feeding the president to all the morning networks. That was done at about six the next morning and obviously people worked through the night to set up infrastructure.

I was on the ground and one of the first communications responders where we set up the communications center. The center is about 1,000 yards from Norris Hall [Where the shootings took place]. Larry Hincker, AVP of university relations, is providing top down overall leadership for this effort. This is a statewide multi-departmental communications program.

The short story is that we've got four or five acres of satellite trucks at minimum 600 journalists and producers from around the world. It's been declared by many of the national and international media that I've spoken to, to be about the biggest single enclave of media to ever cover a single event. I don't know how something like that can be substantiated, but [that's what they told me].

This thing very rapidly grew beyond our capability to manage it on site. Governor Tim Kaine declared a state of emergency and activated the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. Now instantly that engaged some state resources and Bob Spieldenner, director of public affairs, immediately got out here. He is a jewel. He began assembling the Joint Information Center (JIC) and by now, we're talking early Tuesday morning. We had gotten through the first wave cycle of intense media live activity and Bob put the machine in place.

We routed in all central communications and established an enclave of 20 computers and four television monitors to begin immediately managing major news networks to see what they were providing so we could better craft message strategy and figure out what needed to be addressed and he put a number of volunteers in place. Virginia Tech is a large university and I don't want to sound braggy about it, but we have a first class university public relations operation here. We've also got a fairly significant staff and many of them were enlisted to participate and have remained active in the JIC.

The frontline staff in the JIC fluctuates, and [it's] organized so that we are providing 24-hour coverage and shifts so that all calls are answered and appropriate action is taken in response to all the inquiries. We have databases set up making sure that we route certain requests to the right sectors for response.

I've been in the business for over 30 years and I am truly impressed with the efficiency, the softness, the touch and effectiveness of the media relations apparatus that has been assembled to deal with this horrific tragedy.

PRWeek: Has the media rush shown any signs of slowing down?

JD: There are several acres of satellite trucks, and I have never seen anything like this in my life. It's beginning to dissipate now towards the end of the week but there are still several hundred on hand.

We've done an excellent job of immediacy and presenting information judiciously because this is a horrible tragedy with an active police investigation underway we've been very limited obviously with what can be released and that's frustrating in ways for the media of course.

We've been very limited obviously with what can be released and that's frustrating for the media of course. And the media are going to work aggressively to discover information from wherever they can... and by and large they've done a good job.

We've seen a number of people express concern over what NBC [airing the killer's video message]. The Chief of the Virginia State Police has expressed his disappointment that NBC chose to share this information with the nation.

But there is another way of looking at that. People around the world are tearing their hearts out trying to understand the why of this. How could this happen? And I think it takes just a nano-second for somebody to look at that person and they understand that there's nothing anyone could have done to stop this. This was a very disturbed individual and what was going to happen was going to happen and, in a way, letting the world see the perpetrator answered a lot of questions for a lot of people.

PRWeek: What has been the biggest challenge for you up to this point?

JD: We have to overcome the horror of the event because we are so deeply affected by the naked horror of this whole thing. Also, I would say because we're so early in the stages of a very active investigation, we are just very limited with what we can share. But I think we've been as forthcoming as is possible under the circumstances.

You've got to be extremely careful when you're talking about 32 innocent victims and 32 grieving families. Law enforcement and the medical examiners have to be methodical and thorough and it takes time. And until that work is done, communications can't put it out there.

PRWeek: Have agencies contacted you to offer assistance?

JD: I'm not aware of any agencies reaching out to them, but I'm sure it's a possibility.

PRWeek: Do you think Universities should have a resource (whether private-public consortium) to get assistance during times like this?

JD: The system that Virginia has in play [the Virginia Department of Emergency Management] is working admirably.

PRWeek: Are you handling a lot of questions about whether the University should have expelled Cho and do you have a strategy for those questions?

JD: Our talking points at this time do not include that. But if you tune in to any of the press conferences at this point those questions are being asked by the press core. Because we are still in the midst of this thing we can't speculate or provide valued judgment on policy at a time like this.

PRWeek: Are you conducting any running correspondence with students and faculty via e-mail or any other methods?

JD: I'm sure there is but I'm not up to speed with it. I know that reaching out to students and the affected families is priority one.

PRWeek: Are you doing or planning on any outgoing messaging regarding the safety of the school and university to offset any concern from people who might be thinking of attending next year? Are you doing any public perception work?

JD: I don't think any of us have been able to start working on strategy at that level at this time. We're still very much immersed in the belly of this crisis.

PRWeek: Your opinion on the thought of someone saying you guys underestimated the aggressiveness of the media. Did you?

JD: We all understand the role the media needs to play here and they're on site and frustrated. They're searching for answers. And frankly, no line of questioning I've heard in any of the press conferences has surprised me

This is going to go down in text books as a case study in media relations and crisis management and I honestly believe that this crew has truly raised the bar.

 

Michael Sutphin, public information officer for Virgnia Tech, was one of the many communications people answering calls last week in the Joint Information Center. When we spoke last Thursday the high level of activity was clearly audible in the background and the phones didn’t seem to stop ringing.

PRWeek: In your estimation, how many inquiries do you think have come through you guys this week?

Michael Sutphin: It would definitely be in the high hundreds, I don’t have an exact number on that. There are hundreds of media personnel and outlets on the grounds. There wasn’t enough room to fit everyone in the assembly room for the press conference.

PRWeek: How are you monitoring who talks to who in terms of students, faculty and families being interviewed by the media?

MS:
I don’t think there’s anyway to monitor that because there are so many media outlets and people here. And a lot of them are just going up to students and faculty members or contacting them and talking to them independently.

PRWeek: What has been biggest challenge so far?

MS:
Just handling the sheer volume of requests for information that we’re getting, and trying to coordinate something in the middle of a tragedy has got to be the biggest challenge. 

PRWeek: Are you getting calls from the international media as well?

MS:
Many of the calls are from international media.

PRWeek: Have the requests slowed down or is it showing no signs of letting up?

MS:
It has slowed down a little bit but it is still way, way above average. And there’s a lot of breaking news elements to this and [that keeps the calls coming.]

PRWeek: Are there any specific requests you keep getting?

MS:
There’s definitely a pattern in some of the requests we’re getting. One of the more commons one is requests from reporters looking to speak with professor Nikki Giovanni. Wanting specifics about the police investigation is another big request. But we’re also getting calls from people wanting to know where they can send flowers or donations.

PRWeek: Are there calls coming in from non-media people or alumni?

MS:
Yes. I’m not sure exactly how many, but about one-third to a half of the ones I’ve gotten are non-media requests.

PRWeek: With regards to alerting the students after the first incident is the university re-thinking the way it sends out alerts or its entire process?

MS: It’s probably too early to tell that kind of thing. We already have a system in place during emergencies where we send out e-mails. We have a list of students who have signed up to receive text messages and we send out messages to all of the phone lines on campus during emergencies. But it’s too early to tell how we would need to improve that process. Obviously we’ll be having a lot of discussions along those lines in the future during the post analysis. 

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