Friday, June 1, 2007

The Guns, The Lockdown and the Two-Hour Gap

Reprinted with Permission from O' - Jack O'Dwyer's Online PR News Source

Author's Note: I have written a thoughtful and well-reasoned column on the Virginia Tech tragedy for IABC - it will be published in the next issue (and will be posted here when available). It provides a fact-based analysis, along with some specific
recommendations on handling crisis PR.

Jack O'Dwyer asked me to write this very different column for his online publication - one that cuts to the heart of what I think are the PR failures there - specifically, that the University acted too late and with too little in protecting it's students; and, when they did finally act, they gave fatally-flawed advice (and I'm not making a joke - that advice, to hide behind locked doors instead of running away, may have led to some of the deaths - the victims were found huddled in rooms where they made easy and unresisting targets for the madman who executed them).

The O'Dwyer column here also notes that their disaster plan was not field-tested,
and it did not (apparently) have an after-the-crisis component that would guide them in rebuilding their shattered image with students, faculty, staff, alumni, parents or Virginia taxpayers, voters and legislators. These are two elements that should ALWAYS be in crisis PR plans, but are almost never - at least not in my experience - included.


June 1, 2007 O'Dwyer PR
By Ned Barnett

Those who make the plans do not fully understand the consequences of the actions they recommend.

The facts about what happened at Virginia Tech are indisputable.

1. The University enacted a policy that went against the intent of the state's concealed carry firearm law, making it an offense for duly licensed and trained individuals to carry firearms for personal self-protection while on campus. This rule ensured that, when the gunman ran amok, law-abiding students and faculty and staff were unable to defend themselves - obviously, the shooter didn't care about breaking this gun-rule as he slaughtered 32 other students.

2. A troubled individual with a history of mental illness and a propensity for making violent threats had his privacy protected by a system not set up to protect society from dangerous individuals. Eventually he snapped, and 33 people (including himself) died.

3. After a first shooting that left two dead, the University followed its crisis
communications plan and called a meeting. Leaders were still meeting more than two hours later, trying to decide what to do, when 31 additional people were shot.

4. When the University decided to act, instead of using available (loud-speaker) technology to make sure everyone on campus knew of the risk, they instead sent out an email, which only reached those who were online and looking at email. Compounding this communications failure, this email did not say "run for your lives" - instead, it advised students to watch out for, and report, any dangers. In effect, it put students on the firing line without giving them enough information

5. When the University finally got around to issuing more forceful warnings - instead of warning students to "run for your lives" - the University urged students to get behind locked doors and hide. This is where the gunman found his 30 additional victims - hiding in classrooms and under desks - easy targets for even a bad shot.

6. The University's disaster plan had no follow-up component - so an institution whose credibility had already been shattered is now facing the further backlash that
comes from attempting to stonewall on reports identifying what really happened, what really went wrong and who is really to blame. No heads have rolled, and little attempt has been made to win back the trust of alumni, faculty, students, parents or taxpayers in Virginia. EVERY crisis PR plan ought to have a follow-up component; but, like most such plans, the Virginia Tech crisis PR plan stopped when the immediate
crisis ended.

This represents a breakdown in communications at every level. Two hours before the execution-style murders of 30 students took place, the University knew it had a double-murderer out there – he might still be on campus, armed and dangerous. Yet for two hours, they said and did nothing more dynamic than calling a meeting. When they did act, they notified only a small fraction of those who were at risk - and what they told them, in the first "warning" and in subsequent warnings, was potentially fatal advice. Turning students into ill-informed "eyes and ears" of officials puts them at risk.

Telling students and faculty to lock themselves together in groups instead of scattering and running ensures that the murderer will have no problem finding trapped potential victims.

Like most university officials around the country, the leaders at Virginia Tech clearly did not know that handguns have poor accuracy at distances beyond 3-5
yards, or that even trained target shooters have a difficult time hitting moving targets.

Hollywood westerns and TV action shows may present a different view, but reality is far different. Even the best handguns are notoriously inaccurate beyond 25 or 30 feet – and that's when they're being shot at stationary targets under low-stress circumstances. Live-action films of police in close-range shoot-outs with criminals show that even trained shooters have a hard time hitting man-sized targets in high-stress combat-like situations.

That's why experts who understand the limitations of guns - and gunmen - urge people in high-risk situations to run like hell, dodging and weaving and getting away from the shooter.

But the University clearly didn't take the time to figure out the limitations of handguns - instead, and in spite of the bloody history of Columbine and other
school shootings where victims were bunched together, the University crisis planners followed "conventional wisdom."

Instead of telling potential targets and victims to run away, they urged people to cluster together behind closed doors.

The one thing Hollywood has gotten right is that a pistol bullet will shatter an interior lock – not a padlock, or a dead-bolt, but the kind of flimsy door look found in University classrooms and dorm rooms. As a result, when the shooter killed 30 students most of these victims were cowering under desks or standing up against walls. They were immobile targets, hard to miss even by a poor shooter.

Those who survived this assault are those students who, on their own initiative, and
against University advice, jumped out of windows and ran like hell.

This highlights a fatal flaw in most crisis plans. Those who make the plans do not fully understand the consequences of the actions they recommend. They do not field-test their plans – Virginia Tech certainly never field-tested their plan to identify flaws that can be fixed before a crisis arises. Then they rely on approaches that might work in non-crisis situations – such as committee meetings and email notifications instead of taking immediate action that has a chance of saving lives.

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Ned Barnett, owner – since 1985 – of Barnett Marketing Communications, is a crisis PR expert, former college PR director and senior exec for Fleishman-Hillard in Silicon
Valley. Barnett has taught PR and marketing at two universities and wrote nine books on PR and marketing. He was the first person to earn fellowship status from the American Hospital Association in PR and marketing, and in 1978 he was the youngest person to ever (to that date) earn accreditation fromPRSA. He currently writes a monthly column on crisis PR for IABC.