Emergency Procedures Plan in Wake of Virginia Tech

Hundreds of other colleges are doing it and so are we.

We’re updating our emergency procedures plan in the traumatic wake of Virginia Tech. Our plan has been updated fairly regularly, but, I discovered, not regularly enough.

I was reading our document and making a few notes when I came to my responsibilities as a member of the emergency response team. One sentence stopped me dead:

“Public Relations Director will write news release and send to the media.”

This action might just as well be 200 years old. That’s how outdated and worthless it is.

The VT tragedy was, among other things, a case study in the way communications work today. Students had cell phones aimed at the building as the shots were bring fired.

Now, I haven’t checked facts but it’s figuratively true that minutes after Cho Seung-hui killed 32 students, the videos were available internationally.

Bloggers were posting news and thoughts almost immediately. Members of the traditional media were calling bloggers for information!

We can talk among ourselves about how communications have changed, but to watch it on our “home turf” hour-by-hour as it unfolds is much more visceral.

“PR Director will write news release. . . .” The news release might just as well be a report for a history book or Wikipedia. Waiting for approval from a president in the midst of a crisis would waste valuable minutes.

Yes, in a crisis today, every minute is an eternity as hundreds of cell phones, digital cameras, camcorders and bloggers post their information, to say nothing of the thousands of text messages flying around.

Much of that information is going to be wrong.

In fact, the only information that’s going to be accurate is what comes from us as we get it from our police and, possibly, our buildings and grounds director.

Press release? No, the PR Director needs to be working intimately with the president, police chief and IT director to add accurate information to the website in a clear, concise manner the moment it’s available.

(VT communicators and web folks, by the way, did a commendable job throughout the whole ordeal).

I’ve been through a couple campus crises over the years. Information flowing upward and horizontally faces a turbulent, subjective ride. To sift through the information and pull relevant, accurate information is not easy.

But it must be done almost instantly.

With young people, the cell phone has become a really useful sixth finger. It records still shots, video, text, and oh yes, transmits the human voice.

Hopefully none of our campuses will experience a tragedy of any kind. But what hit home with VT is that tragedy can strike, anywhere, anytime.

Information, misinformation and opinions will appear and be available to the global community.

As PR people, we cannot control the flow of information, but we can work to manage accurate information.

We have a meeting about our emergency procedures plan next week. I am going to say, “In the event of an emergency, the PR Director will not write a news release.”

* * *

I would love to have a discussion on this to see what others are doing or get thoughts and ideas.



2 responses to “Emergency Procedures Plan in Wake of Virginia Tech

  1. You are absolutely right. Those of us with decades of experience in communications — while very valuable for our judgement — are the worst offenders for ignoring new media and continuing to do things the way they’ve always been done because that is where our comfort level is. We have to learn to step up the pace to get our messages out. We can’t respond based on old print and broadcast deadlines — the publication deadlines have all been shortened to “now” with the new media. And we must educate our presidents to the fact that there is no time for bureaucratic nit-picking over every quote. We must now move at the speed of communications.

  2. Moving “at the speed of communications” is a great summation. Sadly, the Virginia Tech shootings provides a microcosm from which everyone in higher ed — and any community –should be learning. As PR professionals we need to realize it’s our job to communicate accurate information instantly in any manner possible. And that means learning to use some new tools. I think that goes for PR folks of any age. Education of presidents is really important, as you point out. Fortunately we have an administration that is open and supportive of suggestions from PR, police, IT, buildings and grounds and others.
    More later.
    Thanks for the insights, Gail.

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