Too slow deadly for reputations, but also for lives? Virginia Tech case.

The court case is beginning against Virginia Tech, nearly five years after the deadly shooting that took 33 lives including the shooter. According to this story the prosecutors are focusing the accusations against the school on its slow response in alerting the school community about the initial shooting.

This event in April 2007 brought media and public attention to the the automated notification systems that had been evolving in the few years before that. We must remember that prior to VT, few in the public understood that it was even possible to communicate quickly and directly. Notification in emergencies was based on sending a message to the media who would broadcast it to everyone. And VT had had a problem earlier where they had sounded the alarm to the media, scared everyone, and paid the price for crying wolf. They didn’t want to do that again.

But, as the media got onto the VT massacre, they discovered that some schools had put text and automated phone or reverse 911 systems in place. The question then became–why didn’t VT. And every university president had to answer the question to their local media if they had such systems and how prepared they were to notify the campus in such an event.

Such is the way a story like this horrible event can change the world. I’m guessing now that this trial could have a further effect. If the school is found liable based on its lack of awareness of or slowness in implementing the latest notification technology, that certainly will put a burden on everyone with responsibility over a group (schools, nursing homes, prisons, even whole communities) to make certain they are keeping up with best practices and technologies in communication. And if the administration is found liable based on their rather deliberate and slow approach to react to the emerging crisis, that too will put a lot more focus on an organization’s ability to respond quickly.

Not long ago, Chief Bill Boyd commented on the fact that universities with their collegial approach to decision-making were not amenable to implementing ICS with its very top-down management approach. I believe he is right about this, but management styles that don’t fit with ICS are not limited to universities. The VT lawsuit may draw some attention to this large gap. If the jury and the public through the media decide that the administrators caused deaths by slow response and lack of the latest technology, this court case could have a very significant impact on how organizations evaluate their crisis communication plans and technologies.

 

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