The homepage looks much like that of any other university. Photos of professors studying a pond link to stories touting the faculty's scientific achievements. Below, a picture of smiling students in caps and gowns leads to a list of 2007 graduates and Dean's List honorees. But in the upper right hand corner is an unassuming black ribbon with the words, "We remember." Click on that ribbon and a different Virginia Tech is revealed.
Against a black background a man in a flannel shirt kneels in front of an improvised memorial of candles and flowers. To the right is a list of 32 names, all victims of a shooting rampage by a disturbed student on April 16, 2007. In the bottom right-hand corner is a link to something called The Office of Recovery and Support.
The site is a parallel for the state of VT itself. On the surface, it is a college eager to get on with the everyday business of education, but below the surface it is still grappling with a tragedy that has permanently changed how VT sees itself, to say nothing of how it is seen by the rest of the world.
"During the first week after the tragedy, when the school was shut down and we were truly in mourning, the Web site was an extraordinary tool to reflect how we were feeling," says Larry Hincker, associate VP of university relations. "We carried that design through to commencement, then that site became a micro site.
"The important thing is that you've got to try to get your organization back to what it's known for," he adds.
The stages of tragedy
Like any organization that undergoes a transformative crisis, VT has experienced its own tragedy in stages. First came the acute stage, when hundreds of reporters swarmed the campus, asking questions of everyone and analyzing - often second-guessing - every move the university made. That has inevitably given way to a second stage - the "recovery phase" - when the front-page headlines and CNN specials recede, but the impact on the group's reputation and its stakeholders remain. This is where VT now finds itself.
Like the Web site, the school has been trying to return to normal - without glossing over the shooting - since May. It was then that all university communications, such as fundraising mailings, the alumni magazine, and college newsletters - all of which had been suspended in the weeks following the shooting - returned. Each made mention of the tragedy in its own way, but soon returned to its purpose.
Ceremonies for commencement in the spring and new student orientation in the fall followed suit. They honored the victims but didn't let it overshadow their purpose. "Student orientation is supposed to be like a pep rally," says Hincker. "So what they did was talk a little about it in the opening session and had a moment of silence. But because those students didn't go through what we did, we thought it wasn't right to dwell on it."
Of course, not everything was so easily controlled by the university. Virginia Tech is a public campus where media has the right to roam more or less unrestricted. When media fatigue set in, Hincker's office began issuing "rules of engagement" for students and faculty as guidance for dealing with the press (see sidebar).
The university started working with Burson-Marsteller a few weeks after the shooting, and continues to use that agency "for an outside perspective," says Karen Doyne, MD and head of the crisis communications practice.
A broader message
When the new school year started, to prepare the faculty for student questions and concerns, the university counseling center and dean's office had a series of training sessions apprising them of all the support services available to staff and students.
These are the steps that have helped the campus return to a kind of normal - "the new normal," as Hincker puts it - but students and faculty were not the only ones impacted by this crisis. Communication with the families of the victims was critical, and perhaps not always so smooth. This is why the Office of Recovery and Support, a nine-person team of therapists, project coordinators, and communicators tied solely to the events of April 16, was created in July.
Jay Poole, a former VP of communications at Altria and a VT alumnus, returned to his alma mater to become director of the office. He says that before his department was created, families seeking information would too often get the runaround. "This is a big bureaucracy," he says of VT. "It became obvious they needed a central point of contact.
Now when a family member calls, it's our job to find an answer to their questions.
Sometimes we find it, sometimes we don't, but either way it's our responsibility."
The office is in constant contact with families and others affected by the crisis through weekly e-mails and other updates. "The more information, the better," says Poole. "When there is an information vacuum, someone will step in to fill that vacuum, and that information will often be wrong, or just plain made up."
University communications on all fronts will likely pick up as the anniversary approaches, a challenge that is just now starting to confront Hincker and Poole, who are still deciding how best to commemorate the event. They anticipate a significant resurgence in national media interest, and are preparing for impact it will have on their campus. However, both remain calm and confident about the event, knowing that the worst is behind them.
Dealing with the media
- Some of Hincker's "rules of engagement" for students and faculty, distributed just before commencement ceremonies last spring.
- You are never REQUIRED to speak to the media. Most times, politely telling a reporter "no thank you" will suffice.
- If a reporter is particularly troublesome, just walk away and do not feel guilty about doing so.
- While our current focus is on commencement, it is also okay to discuss your own personal feelings. But go only as far as you feel comfortable.
- [D]o not speculate about things in which you have no firsthand knowledge
- This is your commencement and you should feel free to stay focused on that topic. You control the discussion.