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Media and Crisis Management

Virginia Tech Shootings – The Crisis Response

Posted on: July 29th, 2012

Crisis Management: Virginia Tech Shootings – The Crisis ResponseCrisis communications

(Written in 2007)

 Once again there seems no limit to the horror in our lifetime.  Aside from that, let’s see what the rest of us can learn from the misery of our friends at Virginia Tech and how they dealt with it.

Having been inside many crises, although thankfully nothing approaching this magnitude, there are surely good reasons not yet public for why some things happened and some didn’t.  Also, unprecedented events tax even the best prepared organizations.  You blaze trails that others will either follow or avoid.  There is a steep learning curve.   Smoother and more effective action eventually follows ragged early going.

My takeaways from this awfulness include the following:

 Go fast.  Speed saves in a crisis.  In a case where officials first learn of violence and a gunman perhaps on the loose, rapid action and communication are essential.  Overreaction is possible, but I say it’s ready, fire, aim.  Just do something.  I know the university initially thought it might have a suspect off-site after the first of the two shootings, but what about flooding the campus with law officers and immediately alerting everyone to prevent the second?  What’s the worst that could happen?  People accuse you of being Chicken Little?  That two hour lag before students were officially informed of the first shooting combined with the lack of a campus lockdown may have been deadly.

 Accept uncertainty and adapt.  The university says that one reason there was not a lockdown between the first shooting and the second was that the university is so big with so many students and faculty.  One official even said a lockdown wasn’t in his crisis plan.  That’s what I mean by adapting to uncertainty.  Just because you haven’t planned or trained for it, do the best you can.  Trust your gut and go!  I’ll bet not one crisis plan in the country anticipates a gunman chaining doors shut from the inside as this shooter did.  There will always be something like that.

Have a plan, but have a good one.  One network reporter criticized the university’s crisis plan for having only four pages dealing with campus violence.  It is not the length of the plan that counts, but how helpful it is.  Four pages might be fine.  Most plans I see are convoluted, unrealistic, out of date, nightmares to interpret and never tested by a drill.  Would you believe that not one of my clients has ever, ever pulled out a pre-existing crisis plan to help?  They had plans. They didn’t trust them.  Good plans point you in the right direction so you can act fast.   If yours doesn’t, throw it out and start over.

Plans are only as good as the team.  New Orleans had a great hurricane plan and we saw what happened with Katrina.  Others will judge the university team.  Some parents are demanding the president and police chief resign.

Always know what you want to say.  I commend Tech for its many press conferences.  However, because the school initially relied so much on a Q&A format where the chief’s facts were few and guidance non-existent, reporters and public had to cobble together the story.  It was as though someone threw puzzle pieces on the floor and said, “Put it together.” Eventually the school realized this wasn’t working and began providing timelines and handouts.  Curiously, a later more fact-driven press conference did not allow any Q&A at all.

My intent is not to criticize those amidst our worst mass shooting but to illuminate the darkness you will surely face if you have to manage a “monumental” crisis some day.


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