Category Archives: Virginia Tech

More problems with text messages on campus–absences

USA Today ran a story recently about how text messaging among students about threats is dramatically increasing absences on school and university campuses:

More than two-thirds of students took a day off April 21 at two high schools in Maury County, Tenn., after threats that came after the funerals of two murdered young people.

•One-third of students at George Rogers Clark High School in Winchester, Ky., left school April 21 after text messages warned that a student would bring a gun to school.

•Nearly a fourth of students at Tokay High in Lodi, Calif., stayed home April 16 after text warnings of a gang shooting.

Since Virginia Tech it has become essential for every university and now schools to have some way of mass direct notification using text, text to voice conversion, digital signboards, etc. That rush has now spread (as I predicted it would I must say) to local governments who are realizing that if students expect to be notified, why not citizens on the street.

Yet, these solutions have massive problems. The systems can be easily jammed up with too much traffic, students refuse to divulge their cell numbers to administrators for privacy reasons, technology itself is not completely reliable, false alarms, and now–students themselves crying “wolf.”

A couple of observations–1) there is no going back. We aren’t going back to the days of USPS delivery pre-Fed Ex and we aren’t going back to relying on the Emergency Broadcast System or local radio news reports. No way, no how. We will continue to demand those responsible for our safety be able to communicate instantly and directly with us.

2) new devices will revolutionize this–or I should just say, Apple and RIM will revolutionize this, as they already have with the iphone and the blackberry. The ability of individuals to access critical information right now has grown exponentially in just the past year or so, and will continue to grow. Safety managers need to understand and respond to this growing capability with matching capability to use it for safety communication purposes.

3) As more proliferate, the “cry wolf” syndrome will increase–and the only answer is faster response, better rumor management and the ability of administrators to instantly counter the false information. Some are getting this and are creating that capability. Others probably never will–and it will bite them at some point. If this is true for universities, it is true for large cities and small towns, for large employers with lots of employees and even for the smallest operation.

The demands for instant, direct, transparent information continue to grow.

How the media contributes to a "state of fear" following a national tragedy

Here’s an interesting blog post from Dennis McDonald, reporting on a study of social attitudes following the Virginia Tech tragedy. The vodcast with Dr. Jim Breckinridge highlights how the media–both MSM and new media–contribute to fear and anxiety.

I haven’t viewed the vodcast yet, but what I find interesting is the comment about how the fears resulting from this spill over to other agencies such as the US Coast Guard.

It also raises the question I am most intrigued with which is social responsibility of those influencing others whether MSM or new media. When the goal is attracting an audience to sell ads via broadcast or google ads, how much does social responsibility come into play in making decisions as to how events like this are covered. My suggestion is very little. But the alternative of legislating moral or social responsibility is repugnant to me. How do we get people to care when they have the power to build audiences?

Communication lessons from Virginia Tech continuing to emerge

The Virginia Tech tragedy is likely one of the most significant events since 9/11 for both emergency responders and crisis communication professionals. The lessons learned continue to emerge from follow on news stories like this one from (Thanks Chuck Wolf), to presentations made to response organizations such as those made by Bob Spieldenner, the PIO from the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. Bob, I understand, will be speaking at the National Information Officers Association meeting in Clearwater Beach, Florida at the end of this month.

Bob reports that there were about 1000 media representatives on scene. His presentation includes photos of the acres of satellite trucks, reporters jammed in the hallways, and a very harried Joint Information  Center staff working hard.

It is this kind of media crush that all of us in this business need to prepare for and need to know very clearly how they would deal with it. The Joint Information Center approach can help a lot. But I would suggest that planning for this kind of absolutely overwhelming event focus on two things:

1) The in-person presentations–including individual interviews, press conferences, public meetings and the like

2) Pushing a constant stream of information out.

The in-person presentations are critical because that is what those people in those trucks are there for. You have to have the appropriate leadership ready and available and it will be non-stop. From the article about Larry Hincker, it sounds like they did a pretty good job with that.

The other is push, push, push. With 1000 reporters on campus, there are an awful lot more than that looking for info. And it is not just the reporters that matter. Families, students, staff, government officials of all kinds, key donors and supporters, university associations, etc–all these have a high demand for information. Even a well staffed JIC can simply not keep up in a reactive mode. As they say, the best defense is a good offense. So proactive communication is the only way to  respond to the crush. The keys:

– an interactive website that enables those interested to add themselves to the mailing list

– a way for the JIC to quickly develop messages, edit, approve and distribute

– distribution via multiple modes include text-to-voice phone, SMS text, email, fax and website (while Michael Dame did a marvelous job with the website it sounds, simply providing the “pull” information on a website is not enough. Push and interactive inquiry management are also critical.

– Virtual operation–having these capabilities on a web platform that enables virtual JIC operation enables the JIC team to rapidly increase without having them be in that overcrowded and hectic room. A JIC team can work from their homes or offices as a coordinated response group with the right kind of Virtual JIC technology. Scaling up JIC operations very quickly without having to deal with travel, room logistics, technology, etc., is a critical key to making this work.

Why the response guys don't get it

Traveling through the Southeast and East Coast on a business trip during a heat wave in the middle of August is not my idea of fun. But I must say, the Riverwalk in Augusta, Georgia is a surprising delight–even on a very warm evening.

I can’t be specific here but I was talking to Dan, my traveling companion about the respect (or more correctly, lack of it) that communication people have in the response circles. Having worked with professionals in emergency management, oil spill response, disaster planning, etc., I am quite convinced that most leaders involved in planning for and managing large scale responses tend to think that they are better at dealing with public information than the seasoned professionals they usually have available to them to manage this task. I think they think they can handle the media better, run a public meeting better, deal with stakeholder questions, etc. They only let the PIOs and communication professionals do what they do because they are usually too busy doing the important work of response management or response planning.

The sad truth, from my perspective, is most of these very smart and capable men and women are very much out of touch with the realities of public information. And they will only know that when it hits the fan and they look back and realize how ill prepared they were to deal with the realities of a post-media world. Communicators have far too little clout when it comes to the essential planning steps of a coordinated, multi-agency or large scale response. It’s a lot there own fault, I believe, for not assuming a more strategic posture in the planning process, but it also the fault of those seasoned response professionals.

I was talking to one professional today in this business who is in a very responsible position and who definitely does get it. We agreed that the key for many of these who have their heads up their, uh, sand, is to experience a major event themselves. Only in the aftermath of a Virginia Tech or Minnesota bridge incident will some of these wake up to the realities of public information management. And short of that, because we certainly cannot wish for such catastrophes, the best way to do large scale drills in as realistic a mode as possible. That’s when even the most confident eyes tend to open a bit. Communicators needs to push and push and push that response drills include a very large communication component. No namby pamby let’s have someone call into the JIC and pose a few juvenile media-type questions. It’s got to be full slam to the wall with overloads coming at the PIOs from a hundred directions at once.

For example, in the Virginia Tech incident, there were 1000 reporters on the scene!  1000! How many more were trying to reach those beleaguered JICers trying to keep up with the crush? Let alone family members, community members, students, governors, local leaders, etc., etc., etc.

No question at all that emergency management professionals have a tough job to do. But, as Katrina showed, ultimately the measure of the job they do in a real emergency will depend on communications. Precisely those people they tend to ignore and discount right now.

Crisis aftershocks–what communicators can anticipate

OK, I think I spotted a trend here. Most of you probably noted it already but I tend to be a little slow. I’m calling it the “crisis aftershock.” We’ve seen it clearly in the Virginia Tech situation and now in the Minnesota bridge tragedy. Everyone in a similar position to the organizations involved are facing questions by local or regional media about how they would prevent such a thing happening to them or how they would respond. After Virginia Tech, virtually every university, community college or private college was asked by their local media how they would prevent the Virginia Tech tragedy from happening, how they would notify students, and if they would have made a similar decision to delay in notifying. This public scrutiny of their preparation is largely what has spurred many universities to suddenly act in buy notification systems. I wish that the driver for this was only the need to communicate re safety information. The reality is the embarrassment of not having a good answer to those question is what is driving a lot of very foolish purchases right now.

Everyone responsible for bridges is now having to answer the same question. This article highlights the demand for accountability–now focused on bridges that share a similar design. Communicators and leaders from every state and local transportation authority are facing questions about how can they assure that the bridges under their control won’t all of a sudden collapse. They’re in a tough spot.

So, the point is–each high profile crisis creates a series of mini-crises for anyone in the same or related business. If you make grow organic spinach and some organic spinach gets tainted with e.coli, you will be asked if yours is, how do you know, and what you are doing to prevent it. If you make baby widgets like six other manufacturers and one of your competitor’s baby widgets blows up and hurts a baby, you will be asked how you can assure your customers that yours won’t blow up.

The interesting thing is that we prepare for crises where we may be directly involved. But we don’t necessarily prepare for crises that others similar to us are involved. We prepare for the quake, but not the aftershock and it is the aftershock that may hurt us. So, add one more thing to your list of crisis preparation items.

Virginia Tech's webmaster Michael Dame explains power of the web in a crisis

Since I’ve only been preaching this message for about 8 years, it is great to see some verification from a high profile event. Virginia Tech’s communication effort is now seen as very successful, in large part due to its use of its website for rapid information distribution. This article details some of the important specifics about traffic as well as information gathering, vetting and approval processes.

What amazes me is the comment at the very end: At the end of the presentation, Mr. Dame got a standing ovation. In the crowd, there seemed to be general amazement that staff members at Virginia Tech had been able to organize and disseminate information as well as they did. One audience member was overheard saying: “On our campus, you ask who handles the Web site, and nobody knows.”

It is a sad but true fact that too many communicators at large organizations with much at stake have no ability to fully command the most important communication tools they need when they need them. I would quit any communication job that gave me such responsibility without the requisite authority. It is that important.

Notification is Not Communication

Ever since the Virginia Tech tragedy in April, there has been a tremendous increase in interest in emergency notification. There is almost a sense of panic, so many seem so intent in putting emergency callout capability in place. This is positive in many respects because it is a strong indication that more are starting to understanding the growing expectation that today’s stakeholders have for DIRECT communication. When their lives are at risk, or what you are doing affects them, they want and expect to hear from you directly, not the media, not from blog sites, not second hand–directly from you.

But there is a lot wrong in this frenzied rush to buy notification solutions. We have bandied this about in our offices for weeks and with the prompting of Marc Mullen, my associate who drafted the first version of this paper, I finally put down what I think is wrong with the current thinking about emergency notifications.

Here is the White Paper.

I fully expect that those providing telecom-based notification services will disagree. Good, let the debate begin.

False claims abound in the new world of instant notification

One sad outcome of the Virginia Tech tragedy has been the hyper-activity of many of the notification vendors who provide phone or text message services. I have talked to a number of university leaders and all have commented on how they have been inundated with pitches–many of them distasteful in light of the tragic circumstances.

Then you get those who claim they are the first or only or whatever–even by people who know better. Here is an example from an otherwise excellent article about the emergence of mass notifications in crisis communication by Bulldog Reporter writer David Henderson. What university and other communicators need to know is that there is a dizzying array of notification options and providers. What they also need to know is that sending a max 140 character message on a cell phone, or sending a brief phone message, or lighting up a digital sign (all good ideas) will trigger a massive demand for information. It will require continual delivery of messages to those who wish to receive them, it will require a virtual non-stop flow of information on a specially-prepared website, it will require the ability to manage potentially thousands of personal interactions–all with a very stretched and probably distributed leadership and communication team.

There are complete solutions that help you do that. But don’t think that communication end once you triggered the siren. Now the real work begins.

About the role of blogs in a crisis and technology

At the risk of being circular, I want to point you to two interesting posts at a new emergency managment blog I just discovered (as a result of his comments on my blog). The blog is

First, interesting comments about the need for new and multiple modes of communication from the lessons learned at Virginia Tech. The post is “Technology is not a plan.”

The second is “Reports on the Demise of Blogging are Quite Exagerated.”

Now, I will add this blog to my blogroll.