BLACKSBURG, VA: The massacre at Virginia Tech University that left 33 people dead this Monday, created a crisis communications situation of unprecedented scope for the higher learning institution.
And in less than 24 hours, the university's communications staff was forced to come up with a contingency plan that enabled them to manage the country's largest gathering of national and international media in recent memory.
Within hours of the news, media from all over the world were arriving on the campus. Jeffrey Douglas, communications director of Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, which is located on the Virginia Tech campus, was one of the first communication professionals working the scene.
"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," Douglas said. "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."
Leading the effort was Larry Hincker, AVP of university relations.
Douglas, who estimates there were four or five acres of satellite trucks and nearly 600 reporters on campus at the peak of it all, said it quickly became apparent they were going to need help.
"This thing very rapidly grew beyond our capability to manage it on site," Douglas said. "Governor Tim Kaine (D-VA) declared a state of emergency and activated the Virginia Department of Emergency Management and that instantly engaged some state resources."
By early Tuesday morning the department's director of public affairs, Bob Spieldenner, had set up the Joint Information Center (JIC) in the Holtzman Alumni Center. The university took communications people from its different schools to create a team of nearly 30 people. Michael Sutphin, public information officer for VA Tech, said there were also communications people from the Virginia State Police and the Virginia Department of Health working in the center. Douglas said he was not aware of any PR agencies contacting the university to offer assistance.
The JIC was set up with a bank of 15 phones, 20 computers, and four televisions. "We immediately began monitoring major news networks to see what they were providing, so we could better craft message strategy and figure out what needed to be addressed," Douglas said.
Douglas, who has 30-plus years of experience in the PR industry, said one of the challenges was conveying information on a rapidly developing story that was in the very early stages of a major police investigation. Despite the limitations on what could be said, he believes they did a good job of being transparent and immediate with disseminating information.
"We've been very limited obviously with what can be released and that's frustrating for the media of course," Douglas said. "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. But 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."
Rodney Ferguson, MD and principal at Lipman Hearne, said the university is doing "absolutely the best job under the circumstances" but doesn't think they were ready for the intensity with which the media was going to pursue the story.
"My only criticism of the response would be that they did not plan for the hostility of the media," Ferguson said. "I think some of their responses have seemed defensive because they underestimated [that]."
Douglas said he hasn't been surprised by questions at any of the press conferences.
"We all understand the role the media needs to play here...; they're searching for answers," he said.
Gary Koops, the head of Burson-Marsteller's media practice, said the university has done well in a situation that is unique on almost every level
"You have different audiences, whether it's alumni, faculty, students and parents," Koops said. "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."
By week's end Douglas said the number of media had begun to dissipate but there were still several hundred on site. He said this situation is one that will be studied by PR professionals.
"This is going to go down in text books as a case study in media relations and crisis management," Douglas said.