Crisis management

First full day at the Educause conference and a number of quality presentations. I won’t go into detail on three of them as Chris Sexton has covered them already in her blog.


I attended a presentation from Larry Hincker from Virginia Tech. He is responsible for communications and PR and his presentation focused on the response to the shootings that took place on the campus on 16th April 2007. 32 people lost their lives and a further 17 were injured. The high level of connectivity that exists in the world today was responsible for news of the incident to travel quickly – the first of the media were on their way within 30 minutes of the incident taking place. And the news spread globally –press crews from all over the world arrived at the campus on the day.


So how did the institution respond? They had a plan for dealing with crises but found that they needed to react too quickly to follow a set pattern. The normal protocol was for one on one briefings but the volume of requests meant that a different solution – press conferences – had to be found. It was necessary to communicate as much as possible and to identify and target audiences for all communications. There was a need to ensure all stayed ‘on message’; it was not possible to entirely control media access to university personnel and students so briefings for representatives and more general terms of engagement for all were required.


The institution had to respond to the large media presence – setting up a briefing room, work rooms, opening up the campus internet access to allow them to file their reports, increasing the capacity of the telephone network. It was as important to help the media deliver their messages as it was to be open and transparent in all dealings with them.


So what of the role of technology? News spread far and wide quickly – within 48 hours of the shooting nearly 1600 accounts had been filed on the internet. But also a huge number of messages of condolence were received from around the world. A wide range of messaging systems were deployed to get information out – the web was critical (there was a fifteen fold increase in traffic on the day) but email and texting were also important to deliver information.


Virginia Tech have enhanced their emergency response systems – they are now able to communicate through four different media from one portal and are able to deliver messages to all their 30000 students within 8 minutes using email, text, the website and display panels in classrooms. In the future Larry acknowledged that they may need to look at ways of getting the message out through social networking tools.


Overall a fascinating presentation – nobody wants to have to deal with such an incident but I was left with admiration for the way that Larry and the staff at Virginia Tech had managed the situation and started rebuilding the institution’s reputation from the first press conference.




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