Faced with any crisis, the standard media cliché is to say that no one could anticipate such a tragedy.And, certainly, one could not watch 20 minutes of talking-head commentary during the wall-to-wall coverage following the mass murder of 32 individuals at Virginia Tech University without encountering some permutation of that phrase.
Such a comment is fine as a cliché, but not as an excuse. Any administration not only has to be prepared for how to respond in a crisis, but also how to inform.
As this story went to press, much uncertainty remained about how exactly Virginia Tech reacted to the first reports on gunshots and set out to inform its 26,000 students. What we do know is that school's first alert was short on information and sent, via e-mail, two hours after the initial murders took place and around the time that the majority of the shootings were occurring. Some students didn't find out about the shootings until 10am, after it became known to the outside world.
As a CBS News story pointed out last week, it's not like all students are Wall Street employees with smart phones that can receive e-mail. Sending text messages to cell phones would more likely be the most effective way of alerting the populace. But the school can't just communicate through one channel.
In the aftermath of this tragedy, there will be a rush to urge universities to develop better crisis communications plans. But no strategy will be effective unless that organization understands how its students and employees receive information. "How do I best reach students?" must never be a rhetorical question. It must be backed up by scores of research and specific planning. The administration must know what technologies its students are using, as well as when and how.