Communication lessons from Virginia Tech continuing to emerge

August 19, 2007

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 roanoke.com (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.

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