Thursday, 30 October 2008

Pushing aside the tears to get the job done.

Lawrence Hincker is the Associate Vice President for University Relations at Virginia Tech and gave a moving and scary story of the events which unfolded on April 16 2007 and how the PR team and IT team worked together to manage communications.

Virginia Tech is a large campus with 26,000 students and 6,000 staff. On that fateful day, one student, in 9 minutes of carnage shot 60 people and killed 32.

It became a global event - 15593 news stories were logged about the incident in 2 weeks, and because of the unthinkable nature of the tragedy it seemed like the whole world was involved.
The university teams had to deal with influx of journalists, and a communications situation that no-one expected to have to handle.

A Media City had to be set up – 1500 journalists turned up, together with 140 satellite trucks. They needed a briefing room, a work room, truck logistics, internet access, protocols for campus access. VT opened up their campus network so that everyone had internet access.
Some important thoughts from the situation:
  • Communicate as much as possible – they can’t get too much information
  • Stay on message
  • Use other experts where necessary
  • ID target audiences and flood them with information
  • Reputation management starts at the beginning of the crisis
The shooting was over at 10am and VT had information up on the web almost straight after and had their first press conference at noon.

Think about how you’re going to manage phone calls – their telecomms team were constantly adding capacity and priority management. The mobile providers were contacted and mobile towers added. A Joint Information Centre to handle calls was set up within 12 hours with phones, TVs and computers and all calls were diverted there. Interestingly their on campus network held up - it was the off campus and mobile networks which crashed.

A point well made was that in these days, the Web is everything – it’s a powerful tool in a crisis, particularly as it allows you to self publish. University home pages are normally heavy with graphics – in situations like this you need a very light text based one – get one ready now and hold it in reserve. The traffic on VTs web site shot through the roof, and the IT team had a new webserver up and running in 15 minutes. In total they added a 5 new fileservers in less than 24 hours. Information was continually added in a blog-like format. Think web 2.0.

Some issues around communication

  • Notifications – the fact the we have capability creates expectations
  • Notification systems – do they work? Are they quick? NB no single system does it all
  • When do you declare an incident? What about false alarms?
  • Who makes the decision to notify when public safety is involved?
VT have developed a new notification system where the ability to send an email to everyone on campus, to send text messages, put up alerts on the web site and send messages to digital screens in classrooms is all handled through a single portal and can be done in minutes.

It was a very thought provoking presentation and has made me realise that our notification systems are nowhere near as good as they could be, but it usually takes an incident to make you realise it.

A video of the session is here

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