Sadly, Virginia Tech once again found itself in the news recently for an on-campus shooting incident when Officer Deriek Crouse, a 4-year veteran of the school’s police department, was shot and killed while conducting a routine traffic stop on campus. The shooter was not involved in the traffic incident, but approached the officer at the scene. After killing Officer Crouse, the suspect, who was not a Virginia Tech student, fled to another on-campus parking lot where he apparently shot and killed himself.
As the tragic events unfolded, Virginia Tech students, faculty and employees received a series of messages from the VT Alert system. The system distributed four alerts via text, email, and to electronic message boards in classrooms and other campus buildings within the first 90 minutes of the initial incident. Virginia Tech officials continued to use the alert system to distribute additional messages, updating the events until police declared the campus “secure” at an afternoon news conference. This was not the case in 2007 when a gunman killed 33 students on the VT campus.
“It sounds like things moved very, very fast this time as opposed to the time before,” Andrew Goddard is quoted as saying. Goddard’s son was wounded in the 2007 attack and his daughter and nephew are currently students at Virginia Tech. “That doesn’t surprise me. Virginia Tech really did get the message that when bad things happen you have to act quickly.”
Universities are required under the Clery Act to provide warnings in a timely manner and to report the number of crimes on campus. Ironically, the most recent shooting occurred just as Virginia Tech was appealing a $55,000 fine levied by the U.S. Department of Education in relation to the 2007 incident.
The shootings at Virginia Tech and the scandals at Penn State and Syracuse Universities are high-profile cases where crisis communications skills continue to be required. In this case, Virginia Tech demonstrated its ability to act quickly, providing clear and effective communications to their communities. The failure of effective crisis communications strategies severely damaged the reputations of both Penn State and Syracuse.
School administrators who are not actively implementing, developing, or carefully reviewing crisis communications plans for their campuses, are risking the reputation and goodwill of their institution; they may also be risking their job. This was the case at Penn State University where the Board of Trustees chose to remove President Graham Spanier from his position in part due to the failure of the University to effectively communicate from the beginning of the scandal. The fact is, with the proper planning and training, some of these crises may have been avoided.
For more information on the Fallston Group call 410.420.2001 or send email inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org. Fallston Group LLC, a crisis communications company.