History's take on Virginia Tech and its impact on crisis management–and the world

They say that journalism is the first draft of history. This qualifies as journalism, then, but with an eye to the changes that this event will make in our world, and particularly the world of crisis communication. I’ll present random ideas in bullet form.

1) The media, being in the infotainment business, continues its insistence on finding someone to blame.

The person who is lying dead on the floor with a self-inflicted fatal wound does not qualify. In this case, it was the administration for “failing” to notify everyone. To the point where President Steger was asked if he would resign. Outrageous. Only with the benefit of hindsight can anyone fault the decision that was made. And to apply 20/20 hindsight and find fault on that basis is highly unfair and can only be justified in the light of the insistence that someone has to be at fault.

2) For every action that grabs the media’s and world’s attention, there has to be an extreme overreaction.

As I write this I have been informed that dozens if not hundreds of schools are in lockdown. Entirely predictable. A car backfiring within three miles of any university or school campus is going to result in a lockdown. That is until cooler heads prevail, the costs of such actions are analyzed, and administrators become as afraid of being accused of being lockdown crazy as they are now afraid of being accused of what VT administrators are accused of.

3) SMS will be on everyone’s “have to have” list for crisis communication.

This brought the attention of the world as nothing else has in my 20 plus years of crisis communication, of the need to reach people quickly in ways they can be reached. Phone notification vendors (of which we are one–offering it as part of a comprehensive solution) are going crazy trying to capture the feeding frenzy of buyers of emergency notifications services. Some of the strategies and approaches are stomach turning, but that is another issue. The point is, the world of emergency notification and crisis communication is forever altered by this event.

4) Rapidly changing modes of communication.

A few days ago I would guess that most professional communicators were only vaguely aware of Facebook–and certainly did not consider these social media sites as a viable means of communication. Let alone, a replacement for email. Let the record show, I blogged on this several weeks ago. Now, many are looking at these sites in a whole new way including looking at how they need to be incorporated into a comprehensive emergency and crisis management solution.

5) Don’t expect too much in responsible or moral thinking from the media.

This goes to the issue of NBC playing the video. I don’t want to be as harsh as this may sound. The reality is that someone somewhere with a website would have gotten this, it would go on YouTube soon, and it would be all over. And NBC would have lost a scoop opportunity of enormous proportions. It would have happened. Do not doubt it. Our world is brutally transparent and the beheadings in Iraq have demonstrated. So what would you have done if you were an executive. Your future is at stake, your ability to draw an audience is being hurt everyday as the compelling stuff is found on the Internet. I will not judge them. But I will say that the overarching economic realities need to be kept in mind as people set their expectations for media decisions.

6) What becomes possible, becomes expected, then demanded.

Personally, I think this is the biggest long term outcome–and particularly for us in crisis communication technology. A few days ago, few knew about SMS text messaging as an alternative means available to reach people in a life-threatening event. Now it is known. It is known that it is possible, even inexpensive. Every university in the world is scrambling to answer the question as to how they would reach students in this event. But, this does not just apply to students. A university is, after all, a community. It has public safety officers, headed by a main administrator responsible for the welfare of those in his or her care. Sort of like the mayor of a town or city and the public safety officers. I suspect that many people will soon start to ask the question–if a university can reach all students by cell phones and text messaging, why shouldn’t I be alerted if there is a rape, or murder, or bomb explosion, or toxic release, or some other health and life event taking place in my town, my city, my neighborhood?

When Federal Express announced you could get a package shipped across town or across the country in a day, absolutely, positively, it changed the expectations forever about package shipment. I predict this event will change the expectations forever about emergency notifications for everyone. It seems inevitable.

I have already had conversations with a fire chief and a head of communications for a county in this area about announcing to the community that they can get text alerts about life threatening situations by logging their cell phones into a public safety websites. The technology these departments have is already in place. The only thing missing is to let the community members know it is possible. But once they understand it is possible, they will demand it. That is what I predict.

Finally, this interview by PRWeek with one of the media responders gives a very good idea what the pressure of dealing with the media frenzy in this event was like.

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