Lessons Learned From Tragedy

While many of us watched the terror that unfolded on Virginia Tech’s campus April 17, 2007 one man saw a completely different angle than what we caught on the nightly news.

 

Having faced a coworker fall victim to gunshots once before, Jeffrey Douglas thought he’d never live a day harder than that until one student opened fire on campus the morning of April 17.

 

As the communication director for Virginia Tech, Douglas became in charge of holding press conferences, establishing a base for the families that were rushing to campus to find their loved ones, establishing space for the hundreds of media personnel that flooded Blacksburg, and coordinating with local and state officials.

 

After Governor Tim Kaine declared a state of emergency, many satellite trucks, reporters and families swarmed onto campus. Virginia Tech entered into the first phase of a crisis plan—managing the emergency.

 

A “media city” was formed in the first 24 hours as officials tried to confirm a suspect. The “city” housed news rooms, briefing rooms, outlets with internet access, bathrooms, and food donated by local businesses.

 

Looking back at the chaos Douglas offered a Crisis 101 Plan for anyone dealing with a crisis. Though he said every crisis is different everyone can learn from these tips.

 

1. If you have a crisis plan in place, put it into effect immediately and drill it into everyone involved.

 

2. Establish a communication center. Keeping the media happy keeps everyone else happy.

 

3. Designate a spokesperson. During a crisis everyone needs to hear their information consistently from one clear voice.

 

4. Keep the president, CEO, etc. visible. It may save them from being blamed later.

 

5. Communicate as much as legally possible as soon as possible. From what Douglas shared, many parents were upset that their children didn’t know about a shooter sooner.

 

6. Stay on the message. Only disclose relevant confirmed facts.

 

7. Share additional information as it’s handed out.

8. Assemble with the media, police and volunteers and share information. Everyone can help each other collect information and confirm it.

 

To stabilize campus—phase two of a crisis situation—Virginia Tech made updates on their main homepage streaming important alerts and messages hourly meanwhile students used social media to share their status.

 

The university attempted to stabilize the Virginia Tech news we were all seeing across the nation. A Joint Information Center was created to route all information regarding the shootings to one location by including administration, local and state officials, local telecommunication companies who offered support, and the media.

 

In the days that followed Douglas said it was important to resurrect Virginia Tech, the final phase of the crisis. Returning to normalcy meant asking reporters to go home, offering counseling to those grieving and looking forward to the next sporting event—something Doulgas said was a great way to heal as the university attempts to not let this massacre define them.

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