dealing with a crisis: Virginia Tech

One of the things PR professionals should come away with from the tragedy at Virginia Tech is the immediacy in response by the media and online social sites. News crews poured onto the campus while they were still trying to figure out what exactly had happened. That same evening several networks ran one-hour programs on the events, and the victims, of that morning. And blame had already begun to be placed onto administrators and police.

All this in the first 24 hours following the shootings.

PR Week writes:

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 enabling 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.


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.


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.

Additional posts on PR & Virginia Tech:

  • Publishing 2.0 writes “Virginia Tech: First Thoughts” in which the questions is asked: What are the implications of encouraging citizen journalism during life-threatening events? and Could better coverage of the first shooting have lead to lives saved in
    the second shooting — or have prevented the second shooting entirely?
  • In Resonance Partnership Blog’s “Virginia Tech: Social Media in Crisis Planning” the role of social (and immediate) communications tools is addressed: The question is, why weren’t the instant
    tools: Text and voice messages used by the university to notify
    students? These students are wired….this is the way to communicate
    with them. It can save lives and that is not hyperbole. Every
    organization, business, schools and universities ( and even families)
    should give serious thought to using these tools as part of their
    crisis planning.
  • Crisisblogger remind us, in “Virginia Tech–changing things forever,” to remember the four P’s: Policy, Plan, People and Platform.
  • Content Matters points to two articles in Chronicle of Higher Education: Virginia Tech Student’s Facebook Group Offers a Way to Grieve and Students Turn to Facebook for Information on Their Friends. They point out, Students turned to the medium they use the most, online social
    networking sites, to look for friends, get updates, and then share
    their grief and confusion over Monday’s tragedy
  • Under The News asks, in “VIRGINIA TECH: The coming storm for immigrants,” How long before the radical anti-immigration crowd begins
    to agitate for tighter borders? And can otherwise undecided Americans
    be swayed by the notion that these senseless bloodbaths might have been
    avoided by a more exclusive immigration policy?

Author: Paloma Cruz

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