Virginia Tech - expert opinions

The following communications offered their opinions on the job that the Virginia Tech University’s communications pros put forward during last week’s crisis.

Gary Koops,...

The following communications offered their opinions on the job that the Virginia Tech University’s communications pros put forward during last week’s crisis.

Gary Koops, the head of Burson-Marsteller’s media practice

You have different audiences, whether it’s alumni, faculty, students and parents. Watch any of the coverage and reporters are talking to students, law enforcement officials, administrators, and faculty. It’s not as controlled a situation as you would have in a government or private industry setting.

There’s not a college campus or any institution that is ready for 300 to 400 journalists to descend upon them with two dozen satellite trucks in 24 hours. So it stretches all the mechanics and logistics of any communications infrastructure and institution.

I think the folks at Virginia Tech have done well under extraordinary circumstances. They have had administrative people and the president and law enforcement accessible as much as you can in a situation that’s somewhat extraordinary. They’ve made it accessible to the media and they’re made it easy for the media to at least try to do their job and I think they tried to communicate in a transparent way.

PRWeek: With regards to the course of action the university took after the first incident, do you think they did the right thing?

GK: People that want to second guess it probably weren’t there. Every incident has always made institutions re-think. To try and compare anything [that has happened in the past] to this tragedy is the wrong way to go because this is so extraordinary.

Rodney Ferguson, MD and principal at Lipman Hearne, which assisted Seton Hall University in the aftermath of a dormitory fire in January of 2000 resulting in the death of three students and serious injury to a dozen or so others.

It’s almost impossible for someone who has not been in this position to understand what the pressure is like when you’re getting literally thousands of requests for information and interviews. No institution the size of Virginia Tech can ever be fully prepared for the scope of this type of response. It’s impossible. I think these folks are doing absolutely the best job [they can] under the circumstances in managing the response and trying to meet the requests of all these media organizations.

Any organization that serves students or even customers has to have a plan for a major disaster or tragedy and then when the time comes to execute it you do the best can under the circumstances. I’m not critical of their response. I think they are all attempting to do their job under the most the most adverse set of circumstances imaginable.

It looks as if though they had a plan in place. My only criticism of the response would be that they did not plan for the hostility of the media. I think some of their responses have seemed defensive because they underestimated [that]. And that may be in part because Blacksburg, VA is not a major media market, and they have never experienced a situation where every media outlet in the world descends upon them and every media outlet in the world is looking to somehow learn some bit of information the other media outlets don’t have. So the media is extremely aggressive, occasionally hostile, and in a crisis like this, you have to plan for and be psychologically prepared to deal with that hostility and aggressiveness. Under the circumstances, it takes an almost Herculean resolve and discipline not to become defensive.

They have to communicate that the leadership of the institution is doing everything possible to attend to the needs of those suffering. I think they certainly tried to do that. Unfortunately the media will invariably focus on the procedural issues—who knew what, when, why did they take certain actions. And the institution’s leadership and spokespeople have to convey what information they know, but always come back to the most important task at hand, which is ensuring the well being of the community. The procedural issues will work themselves out.

PRWeek: With regards to the course of action the university took after the first incident, do you think they did the right thing?

RF: That’s a security issue: None of us know the full context of what they knew and when they knew it. So I don’t know if it was a snafu or not. Their responsibility is to simply convey what they did and when they did it and then move on to the other issues — taking care of their students and their families.

Tim Tinker, SVP at Widmeyer Communications and a risk communications expert

PRWeek: If an organization already has a crisis communications plan in place does there come points if a situation is as unique as this one that everything goes out the window and you just have to wing it?

TT: No, it has to be adapted. There has to be enough flexibility and the plan has to be robust enough that you can adapt it to the situation based on the level of the crisis.

The plan response protocol was sufficient and appropriate for the first incident but it escalated— [when] you move from having two murders at a scene to a catastrophic situation. Those types of escalation procedures, not only in terms of operational response but communications as well, are really critical.

As extraordinary a crisis as this is, it’s not unusual that we got a good description of the factual information the who, what, when, where, why, and how. But the critical need in an emotionally charged situation like this is balancing the facts and the information with the emotions and the concern. And I think we did hear the expressions of empathy and concern, but I think the situation was very quickly taken to the factual side. There was an opportunity, from a communications perspective and a process perspective, to keep the response focused on what they were doing now, and say there will be time for us to make improvements in a number of areas but right now our energy is focused on the students, families, employees and local communicates and meeting their needs. They did that to an extent.

But I think they were very quickly pulled into what we call more of a “question driven” type of communication rather than a “message driven” approach. The message driven approach is that they were dedicated to getting the facts and making sure that they were responding to the needs of the victims, families, the community, and their employees.

PRWeek: Do you think social media is going to play a bigger role in the alerting of students in emergencies in the future?

TT: Typically it’s going to come back to looking to using multiple channels as opposed to relying on a single type of channel. The more important point is there needs to be centralized control with delegated authority around those types of communications. It needs to be multi-channel, whether it’s automated, e-mail, text messaging, faxing or Web.

You can put all of these information portals in place but the larger question becomes how often in a non-emergency or emergency-type situation are students accessing these things and how many times does a student actually go and visit the University Web site.

But, in the post event lessons learned there’s going to have to be a good amount of [focus on] safety education that has to be done versus a preparedness education with staff, faculty, employees, students and local community.

The one thing they did very well was setting them up fairly quickly to become the go-to resource of information and showing competence and expertise – that they had a response team and process in place.

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