Crisis Management: Va Tech Misery Helps Other Schools: Crisis Response
Virginia Tech’s misery has benefitted others. Within 20 minutes after gunfire wounded two students at Delaware State University in 2008 officials began notifying everyone and closing the campus. They said the Tech shootings that murdered 32 motivated their swiftness. A spokesperson said, “The biggest lesson we learned… is don’t wait. Once you have an incident start notifying the community”
Readers of this column know I have preached the need for speed for years and I repeated it a few days after the Blacksburg horror of April 2007. A Wharton School crisis management article of that year titled “Can’t Run; Can’t Hide…” says “speed may be the most important factor.” While everyone should now appreciate fast-action, given Delaware State, let’s reflect further on Va. Tech’s tragedy especially in light of published investigations.
Speedy decision-making and action require that the crisis team be engaged fast. Two students were known to be dead, no shooter was in custody, and this was the Tech timeline. Campus police learned of the 7:15am shooting at 7:24, told the chief (not on the crisis team) at 7:40, who informed a crisis team member at 7:57. With the president now participating and alerting potential responders plus the governor, the crisis team (called the emergency Policy Group) convened at 8:30, decided by 9:00 that campus notification was warranted, sent out the email at 9:26, and the gunman started firing again at 9:40. The university’s internal investigations found no fault with this response. The Governor’s study did and said, “The earlier and clearer the warning, the more chance an individual had of surviving.” (Delaware State’s campus-wide alarm just 20 minutes after gunfire came after midnight, but, again, with Va. Tech in mind.)
Every crisis is unique. Tech officials said they hesitated on mass notification after the first shooting to avoid campus chaos like that following a 2006 alert that police were looking for a killer. This is a tough nut. We learn from the past. However, past success/failure may not apply to the present. The 2006 incident restrained assertiveness and so did the lack of alarm from campus police (for which they were later criticized). Every crisis is loaded with uncertainty, adaptation the only recourse.
Many believe Va. Tech’s team did the best it could with the information it had. The president insists that’s true. Furthermore, no university had faced such a horror and campus shootings were rare. Still, here’s a crisis decision-making process that helps when choices conflict. Consider options. Determine the worst-case outcome for each and whether you could live with it. Crosscheck your thinking. Option-review avoids locking-in prematurely to a single tactic. To wit:
Va. Tech based its actions on campus police reports that the first shooting was domestic, that the assailant was known and believed to be off-campus. But what was the worst-case outcome for accepting that option? 1) Police assumptions were mistaken, 2) they were pursuing the wrong person, and 3) a gunman was still loose. As we know, that was indeed the case. Perhaps if someone had raised the worst-case possibility (maybe they did) Tech would have sounded the warning earlier.
A dissenting view to all the above is that I am encouraging overreaction. In my crisis experience under-reaction more frequently presents the greater risk.
So, Delaware State University, 1/6th the size of Va. Tech, “went to school” on Va. Tech’s tragedy and reacted fast. A Delaware State official who investigated Tech’s response said, “I think like post-9/11, there’s a post-April 16 mentality.”