Monday, April 23, 2007

The Virginia Tech Massacre: The Communications Dimension

I am as amazed as you may be how timely, rapid communications could have been a critical factor in minimizing the terrible loss of life in the Virginia Tech Massacre. Thus, I am excerpting below an op-ed by Jack O'Dwyer, editor-in chief of the J.R. O'Dwyer publications, which effectively addresses this issue head on. (NOTE: The article is available to subscribers on O'Dwyer's website).

The failure of Virginia Tech cops to immediately put out a bulletin that two students had been murdered and that the assailant was still on the loose resulted in the loss of 31 more lives (including that of the shooter).

The culprit here is official reticence to face unpalatable facts. PR's job is to provide such facts. But it cannot perform better than the people it works for.

Rage over this delay now accompanies the enormous burden of grief being shouldered by the families of the victims, the student body and faculty of Virginia Tech, and the entire nation.

Explanations by authorities that it was felt the murders were an isolated "domestic" incident and that the assailant had left the campus were no more reasonable than the theory that the assailant was still loose on the campus and might kill others.

Available to police and school administrators were the campus radio station, a loudspeaker system, e-mails to student dorms, the local media and other forms of communication.

Official explanations for the failure to announce the news, citing the impossibility of closing down the entire campus, are adding fuel to this fire. …

Everyone on campus had a right to know shortly after 7:15 a.m. that there had been two murders in one of the dorms. Whether classes were to be held as usual is another matter. Students and faculty at least would have been on guard.

Withholding bad news, which is an automatic reaction among those in authority, was the culprit here. … [But] withholding this information … [has had] disastrous effects.

The essence of public relations, and most especially in crises, is thinking strategically about how and when to communicate with various target audiences, and thereby make a difference; in this case (on the heels of the two murders), in addition to the students, there were the faculty, the administration, the university employees, the city and student news media, the city officials and the local police, who should have been rapidly alerted using communications channels noted above in the O'Dwyer’s piece, as well as others.

In fact, in today's connected and highly mobile society, where probably most students and most people in responsible positions have cell phones, there may be – there should be! — technology where leadership can text message or email all students, as well as an emergency VIP list, in a matter of seconds.

Hopefully, one lesson from this national tragedy is that all educational institutions will develop crisis plans to deal with such situations, establishing an emergency communications chain and the technology to get the message out fast. Communications can save lives.

Technorati Tags: Virginia Tech, Virginia Tech Massacre, Jack O’Dwyer, O’Dwyers, business, public relations, communciations


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