Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Tragedy at Virginia Tech: A Case Study

Introduction

The tragedy at Virginia Tech was a horrible incident that occurred eight years after the shooting at Columbine High School. The public relations personnel involved in this crisis had to not only disseminate all current information in a timely matter but also combat the rise of technology and the idea of the citizen journalist.


Research- Timeline

The tragedy at Virginia Tech first started to unravel at 7:15 a.m. Monday, April 16, 2007 when a 911 call was received reporting two victims, a male and female, had been shot inside of their dorm room in West Ambler Johnston Hall. It was first thought that the incident was caused by a lover’s quarrel, and the authorities started to follow-up leads at 7:30 a.m.

By 8:25 a.m. the Virginia Tech leadership team consisting of the university president, executive vice-president and provost assembled to determine how to notify the students. The Virginia Tech police department’s Chief W.R. Flinchum briefed the team on the current situation.

At 9:26 a.m. all faculty, staff and students were emailed of a homicide investigation that was underway on-campus and asked to report any suspicious activity. The Virginia Tech Emergency/ Weather line transmitted and broadcast a phone message at this time. Also, a press release was drafted and put on the university’s website.

However, at 9:45 a.m. another 911 call was reported of a shooting that was taking place in Norris Hall, a building home to the Engineering Sciences and Mechanics and many other programs. Within the next five minutes or so sixty people were shot. When the police arrived to the scene, all three main entrance doors were chained shut. By the time the police had reached the second floor, the gunman had taken his own life.

The university used the same means to notify the university’s community and started to notify local media in other ways. By 10:17 a.m., the university sent a third email notifying the cancellation of classes for the rest of the day and advised people to stay where they were located. A fourth email was sent out at 10:52 a.m. warning everyone on campus that a multiple shooting with multiple victims had occurred in Norris Hall, but the shooter was arrested. However, there may be a second shooter.

At this time, all campus entrances were locked to ensure no one could enter or exit a building without the police knowing. At 12:00 p.m. the two sides of campus were evacuated and told faculty and students to return to their homes. At 12:15 p.m. Virginia Tech’s President, Charles Steger, held a press conference confirming that at least twenty-one people were dead and at least twenty-eight injured. The death toll rose to twenty-two people around 1:00 p.m. By 12:42 p.m. Steger released everyone from the buildings on campus and set up a counselor center.

At 1:43 p.m. a news station confirmed that there were two separate shootings on the Virginia Tech campus. President Bush issued a statement later in the day giving his condolences to the victims and families of the incident.

The shooter’s identity was not discovered until hours later because his face was disheveled from the gunshot wound, and he was not carrying any identification on him. Also, his fingerprints did not initially have a match. At 9:06 p.m. police confirmed that Cho Seung-Hui was the killer for both shootings that had occurred that day. His named was not officially released until the following day at 9:15 a.m. Steger also announced Tuesday morning that classes would be cancelled for the rest of the week.


Research- Cho Seung-Hui

Cho was a South Korean who first moved to the United States when he was eight years old. At Virginia Tech, he was enrolled as an English major. However, when he was in middle school he was diagnosed and treated with severe anxiety disorder. He received therapy and was in special education classes until his junior year of high school. In 2005, he was accused of stalking two female students and at this point was declared mentally ill. One of his professors asked him to seek counseling due to his disturbing behaviors and writings in English class.

That evening, MSNBC received a package from Cho, which contained a “multimedia manifesto”. The package contained twelve photos, five pages with his passages, and nine video clips that justified and answered the question as to why he decided to follow through with the incident.



Objectives

Virginia Tech had a crisis on their hands and needed to effectively disseminate ongoing information about the situation to their students, faculty, staff and the community. The crisis management team decided it best to notify students and faculty via email. After first posting a news release on the university website, it was changed to a text-only format. This format allows more users to access the website more quickly.

The Inn at Virginia Tech was sanctioned as a place for parents to go to receive more information. There were also two separate counseling services one for students and the other for faculty or staff. A shuttle service ran between these three places and all residences.

A hotline was also created where people could find out information, provide any information on the case, and be directed to counseling services. The university also held press conferences throughout the days in order to inform the media of any new information. These press conferences were also posted online at podcasts.



Rise of Technology

Citizen Journalist
The technological advancements today have allowed anyone to become a journalist by either taking video and photos via a cell phone or creating a blog for people to find information. Both were used in the case of Virginia Tech. One student, who was in Norris Hall during the time of the shootings, took a video with his cell phone of the events that were taking place. He was able to showcase to the world the chaos and fear that was seen by the students trapped within the building. Another student created a blog entitled “The Lede”, which gave up-to-date information on the situation. Journalist from CNN and the Times used the information contained on the blog. A link to it was actually found on the homepage of the Times.


Blogs
Blogs also were a key component in the case. Almost every national, regional and local newspaper had their own blog detailing the events, giving current information, voicing their opinion about gun control, and acting as a forum for people to post their comments and concerns.

MSNBC was a major player in blogging, considering they were the news company to receive Cho’s multimedia manifest. The organization posted almost half of the all the mediums they received from it. They also tried to highlight the positives, by discussing the increased activity that the campus gyms saw on the Virginia Tech campus. A lot of students found working out as a way to handle their stress.

The campus newspaper, The Collegiate Times, set up a blog on their website, which gave up to minute updates. Their website saw a lot of traffic as an overflow from the Virginia Tech homepage.

Another online site titled “CollegeWebEditor” set up blogs as a way to access the podcasts by President Steger. They also had a post dealing with crisis communication. They talked about how important it is for websites to have text-only format when there is an increased amount of traffic. They also talked about how the increase in technology could be used as an advantage, by using blogging and Facebook as a way to access information.



Criticisms

After the events began to unfold, the university saw a lot of criticism from the media on their response to the incident. The major criticism was that the university needed to improve their security, enhance their campus-wide alert system and better monitor troubled students. Newspapers questioned why the university did not lock down the campus right after the first shootings occurred.

The university thought it was not feasible to shut down the campus at that time in the morning, since most students, faculty and staff were commuters and would just be arriving to campus. There would be no main way to stop students from entering or exiting such a large campus. It would be like trying to shut down a small town.

Most people also believed that President Steger should resign from his position. They thought this tragedy could have been avoided had the staff taken measures to help Cho’s mental instability and ensure the safety of the rest of their students. However, this issue deals more with how involved universities should be with the private lives of their students.

Most critics did, however, comment that the action taken by the police was well executed. The police are well trained in active shooter response, and so they responded quickly to the first shootings. They had no reason to believe that the shooter would continue due to the type of homicide they arrived to in the morning.



Evaluation

Virginia Tech was applauded for their calm demeanor after the incident occurred. The president and public relations team worked side by side with experts from Columbine and 9/11 to ensure they took every necessary step.

After having a panel review every aspect of the incident, Virginia Tech took into consideration how they should better improve their methods of communication. They paired up with 3N National Notification Network out of California for a four-year contract worth two hundred thousand dollars. 3N is implementing a communication system, which sends messages to cell phones, emails and instant messengers. Students have a choice of which method they would like to be contacted, and then confirm they received the message.

They tested this out in early October and more than seven hundred people said they did not receive a message, so they are still working out the glitches. However, most students received the message within thirty minutes after it was sent. On April 16th, the university used email alerts, announcements on the website, voicemail blasts, a siren and loudspeaker.

The university started conducting mass casualty training exercises for all faculty, staff, some students and local emergency responders. They hope people will be better prepared for another incident that involves multiple people. They have also looked into training professors on mental health issues.



Public Relations Professional Opinion

I interviewed Jonathan Clay, Jack Morton Worldwide Project Manager, for his public relations opinion of how Virginia Tech handled the situation. He does integrative marketing for corporations such as NBC, Microsoft and Cotton. He stated that the most important time was the two hours in between the two shootings, where the university “went into crisis management rather than the safety of their school. They should have been more concerned with the safety of their school and ready for a response to any what if questions.”

He also believes that possibly the university “was too worried about the ‘spin’ the media might take on the initial shootings, and maybe was why they took so long to respond.” He said, “This is an example, I think, of being too concerned with image and ‘spin.’ and letting that get in the way of good judgment and priorities. If they would have put their reputations aside, and considered the students first, it can be argued that the second (bigger) wave of killings could have never happened”. He believes that “PR is good only if it is predicted upon good judgment.”



Other Cases

Unfortunately, there is a long history of school shootings and the Virginia Tech massacre was not the first but deadliest case. This incident happened eight years after the shooting at Columbine High School. This was, at the time, the worst case of school shootings. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris shot thirty-five students and one teacher before committing suicide. In the end, twelve students and one teacher died from the shootings that occurred on April 20, 1999.

There was intensive media coverage right away because major news crews were awaiting developments in the Jon Benet Ramsey case. The Sheriff’s Deputy Steve Davis became the spokesperson for the incident. He gave briefings every hour the first two days after the incident. The media set up a camp next to the school, from which they could broadcast daily.

The worst university-wide shooting happened August 1, 1966 at the University of Texas in Austin. Charles Whitman opened fired from the observation deck of the school’s tower killing sixteen people and injuring thirty-one people. Earlier in the day, he stabbed his wife and killed this mother to spare them from being embarrassed by the actions he was planning on taking later. That day the university had major problems with communications because it was an era where people did not have two-way radios or cell phones. The deck is now open for tours and has a gold plaque to commemorate the victims that fell that day.



My Opinion

Every university and college in the United States and across the world needs to create a crisis management plan for every worst-case scenario one can possibly think would occur. The tragedy at Virginia Tech was a horrible incident, which unfortunately was not the first school shooting in the United States. I would have to agree with Clay when he thought the public relations team waited too long and should have taken the safety first approach to the incident.

No one knows whether or not if the campus had been shut down or classes cancelled if that would have stopped or reduced the number of students that died that day. I thought that after the second shooting occurred the public relations team did an excellent job with disseminating messages to the media, students, faculty, staff and families. They created an organized system on campus, which helped decrease the already chaotic atmosphere. I also thought they handled the increased amount of technology used sufficiently.

I think that it sadly took an incident like this in order for universities and colleges to improve their communication system. Virginia Tech has spent a lot of money to better improve their methods to notify students. They have also taken it one step further in training their community on how to handle a mass situation like this one. I hope that other universities begin to follow this lead.

I also disagree with critics who think President Steger should resign. I thought he handled the situation as best as he could and kept a calm demeanor under all the pressure. I think he is taking proper measures to ensure the safety of his students from this point on. I unfortunately believe that it took a tragedy like this one to force university officials to be better prepared for a situation like this and to not take lightly any warning signs.



References
AP/School Violence Resource Center. “Fatal Shootings at Colleges and Schools.” 16 Apr. 2007 Time. 18 Oct. 2007 http://www.time.com/time/printout/0,8816,1611004,00.html

“Archive News and Notices.” We Remember. Apr. 2007 Virginia Tech. 8 Oct. 2007 http://www.vt.edu/remember/archive/

Cloud, John. “Viewpoint: Va. Tech’s President Should Resign.” 19 Apr. 2007 Time. 18 Oct. 2007 http://www.time.com/time/printout/0,8816,1612492,00.html

Esposito, Greg. “Some Glitches Appear in Test of Tech Alerts.” 11 Oct. 2007 The Roanoke Times. 18 Oct. 2007 http://www.roanoke.com/vtcampus/wb/135327

Esposito, Greg. “Tech Finding Way Forward, President Says.” 17 June 2007 The Roanoke Times 18 Oct. 2007 http://www.roanoke.com/news/roanoke/wb/wb/xp-121048

Esposito, Greg and Angela Manese- Lee. “Tech Studies Ways to Apply Suggestions.” 24 Sept. 2007 The Roanoke Times. 18 Oct. 2007 http://www.roanoke.com/vtinvestigation/wb/133250

Jenkins, Chris L. “Va. Tech Review Recommends Steps to Avert Another Tragedy.” 23 Aug. 2007 The Washington Post. 18 Oct. 2007 http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/08/22/AR2007082201652_pf.html

“Massacre at Virginia Tech.” 2007 CNN Special Report. 18 Oct. 2007 http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/2007/virginiatech.shootings/

“Ongoing Support Resources.” We Remember. 1 June 2007 Virginia Tech. 8 Oct. 2007 http://www.vt.edu/remember/support_resources.php

“Tech’s Response Questioned.” 17 Apr. 2007 The Roanoke Times. 18 Oct. 2007 http://www.roanoke.com/vtshootingaccount/wb/113341

Rawe, Julie. “Can We Make Campuses Safer?” 16 Apr. 2007. Time. 18 Oct. 2007 http://www.time.com/time/printout/0,8816,1611164,00.html

Rawe, Julie. “What Can Schools Do?” 19 Apr. 2007 Time. 18 Oct. 2007 http://www.time.com/time/printout/0,8816,1612392.html

Sluss, Matt and Matt Chittum. “Panel: Report Criticizes Virginia Tech Officials.” 30 Aug. 2007 The Roanoke Times 18 Oct. 2007 http://www.roanoke.com/news/breaking/wb/129962

Tedford, Deborah. “Campus Stirs Memories of Austin Massacre.” 16 Apr. 2007 NPR. 18 Oct. 2007 http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=9619382

“The Columbine High School Shootings.” Jefferson County, Colorado Sheriff. CNN Special. 9 Oct. 2007 http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/2000/columbine.cd/frameset.exclude.html

“The Media Response.” Jefferson County, Colorado Sheriff. CNN Special. 9 Oct. 2007 http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/2000/columbine.cd/frameset.exclude.html

“We Remember.” 2007 Virginia Tech. 18 Oct. 2007 http://www.vt.edu/remember/

Zach, Paul. “Murder, they Googled.” 22 Apr. 2007 The Strait Times. Lexis-Nexus Academic 18 Oct. 2007 http://www.lexisnexis.com.ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/us/lnacademic/results/docview/docview.do?risb=21_T2328287704&format=GNBFI&sort=BOOLEAN&startDocNo=401&resultsUrlKey=29_T2328695324&cisb=22_T2328695323&treeMax=true&treeWidth=0&csi=144965&docNo=424

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