Virginia Tech–changing things forever

Since my company works directly with several very large university systems providing crisis communication and emergency notification technology, this event has obviously impacted our clients and us quite directly. I commented to some of our staff that this event will likely be a watershed event in our work and the crisis communication industry for the way it is has highlighted the need for exceptionally fast and multi-mode notifications. As one example, we just completed and are distributing as I write this to some of our clients instructions about how Facebook can and should be used as one aspect of a complete emergency notification solution.

Tomorrow morning I will participate on a web conference call with a large group of university communication leaders on the strategies and technologies needed to respond to this kind of event.

One thing is clear–it takes more than the right technologies. The solution has to include what we talk about frequently: the Four Ps: Policy, Plan, People and Platform. It is easy in hindsight to question the decision of the university leaders not to order the complete lockdown of the university after the initial incident. It is not so easy in real life to make those kinds of decisions. It is one thing to have the technology that will enable virtually instant multi-mode communication with an entire university community. It is quite another to have the plans, policies and people in place to make the right decisions and to be able to act on them in concert and efficiently. The challenge is huge and those who would too easily criticize those who were in that position probably have never been in a similar situation.

3 thoughts on “Virginia Tech–changing things forever”

  1. Gerald,

    I whole-heartedly agree with your sentiment that it takes more than the right technologies; often people will see technology as the base for a crisis response system as it is often easy to install, can be quickly implemented, looks good and ticks the boxes. However, technology will never replace the ownership and decision making aspects of crisis response and you need the right people for that, rehearsed in the policies and aware of their responsibilities.

    I also agree with your Four Ps. However, without regular training (both team and individual), without regular rehearsals and testing simulations, even the Four Ps can be found lacking when the crisis occurs. The team must also be supplied with simple tools that can assist them in assessing the problem and its impact. This approach allows the management team to arrive at best and worst case scenarios and then plan their responses accordingly. As a distant observer, and running the danger of being guilty of using hindsight, one issue which perplexes me is why the authorities and those managing the response believed the initial shootings marked the end of this tragic incident?

  2. We’ve discussed this issue extensively in the last few days in my media ethics classes. What the students seem to agree upon is that the crisis communication plans for universities need to involve the students in their plans. It’s fine for the police and the administration to know what to do, but students need to be included. If a shooting occurred, should we expect that classes are cancelled? Should we know not to come to campus, and if we’re on campus, should we stay there? These are questions that weren’t answered in the first email Virginia Tech sent out, and perhaps what is now causing some uproar.

    When coaching universities on how to handle a crisis, please make sure they let the students know their role…ahead of time.

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