Virginia Tech Tragedy: Lessons learned in crisis communication a day after the unthinkable

April 17th, 2007 Karine Joly 10 Comments

May 4, 2007 – UPDATE: Mike Dame, director of web communication at Virginia Tech will present a webinar on June 28, 2007 to share his lessons learned after the tragedy as part of a 3-webinar series called “Crisis Communication 2.0 Week” and priced at $250 ($100 of which will be donated to the Memorial Hokie Spirit Fund of Virginia Tech). For more information or to register, visit the registration page.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I co-presented a session about crisis communication in a networked world at a CASE conference last September with Joe Hice, AVP for Marketing & Public Relations at the University of Florida.

Earlier this morning, Joe shared via email some thoughts about what happened as well as a few lessons learned less than 24 hours after the tragedy happened at Virginia Tech. I’m publishing them for all to read with Joe’s permission.

  1. When a crisis occurs, immediately drop all images, flash, video, from your web site. The VT homepage crashed around 10 a.m. because of traffic. They went to an almost text-only page very early on and it still was difficult to get to the homepage for information.
  2. Post statements in print only first. Again, VT was trying to provide as much information as possible and they posted podcasts from their president. A great idea, but with the volume of traffic, I believe the bandwidth required dramatically slowed access to the site.
  3. Use an alternative source or site to distribute key information. Again, recognizing that their system couldn’t handle the load, VT worked with the Virginia State Police to post key messages and information on the VSP site initially.
  4. Blogs are critical and I’m not sure how to deal with them. A blogger named “Bryce” was posting within hours after the shooting. Three hours after the shootings he was blaming the University for not providing adequate security and not “locking down” campus. Technorati found 40,315 blogs on the tragedy by 5 p.m. yesterday.
  5. Media will monitor Blogs and reach out to bloggers. Bryce was contacted by Canadian Broadcasting Corp and MTV via his blog and asked for interviews. I don’t know if he agreed, but the traditional media was using the blogs as a key source/resource. [Karine’s note: reporters from The Boston Herald and the AP Television in Washington also contacted Bryce by posting comments to his blog]
  6. VT acted quickly to schedule a “convocation” of parents and concerned citizens for this afternoon. I’m not sure how they reached out immediately, but it was effective and thoughtful.
  7. Facebook ruled with students. Thousands of groups have popped up and the volume of traffic was/is amazing.
  8. Blogs, Facebook, My Space all feature photo pages, video pages, audio recordings in “real time.” The citizen journalist has indeed arrived.

What do you think?

10 Responses

  1. Anonymous says:

    It seems to me the question of whether a school can “control” the message is becoming archaic.

    Perhaps that type of response is only morally questionable when there is no imminent danger to human life, but it is clearly a mistake when lives are in danger. Taking over two hours to first attempting to alert students is luxury that should not have been afforded.

  2. Karine Joly says:


    I think it’s tough to imply that VT tried to control the message during those 2 hours (and you might too, since you chose to post this comment anonymously).

    Many institutions’ worst nightmare stroke VT yesterday.

    Alerting more than 25,000 students this early in the morning isn’t easy — no matter how dangerous the situation is.

    On u-webd email list, some have suggested the use of text messages.

  3. Graham T. says:

    No doubt that it’s time to rethink the way we communicate. Institution’s will need to understand that they need to leverage the community and not try to control the community.

    It was just amazing how much real time information was generated on Facebook while the story was unfolding. Students were simply sharing information with one another in the medium that they use everyday to keep in touch. Seems to me institutions need to learn how to use that medium as well.

  4. Rob says:

    A note on item #2: I believe Virginia Tech either had a separate server ( or quickly set one up to serve the podcast file separately from the HTML pages. When I visited the site right after the podcast had been posted early Monday afternoon, I was very surprised at how quickly the MP3 file downloaded.

    When your web server is getting a ton of incoming traffic, follow recommendation #1 and reduce your webserver to a few text-only pages. Additionally, you can serve media files (downloadable podcasts, movies, images, etc.) from a separate server that isn’t also trying to serve the crush of people looking for the front page of the university’s site—just like VT apparently did on Monday.

  5. diane says:

    Already I am seeing stuff about the Virginia tech for sale like t-shirts.
    Some things are really in bad taste.

  6. Bryce Carter says:

    I just would like to clarify since my blog posting you have referenced (which I wrote before the I realized the entire history of the situation) I have shown my support for campus security and their actions. They have always done a wonderful job at keeping students safe, and I know they will continue to do so.

    Thank you.

  7. Karine Joly says:

    Thanks for your comment, Bryce as well as your beautiful online videos I featured in another post.

  8. Anonymous says:

    VIRGINIA TECH appears to be still in a crisis, circe-the-wagons mode since it became obvious to everyone that they could have and should have shutoff access to the campus within the more than two hour period before the first killings and the final 30 person rampage. Here is a news story about how VIRGINIA TECH is still trying to muzzle opinions on VT’s handling of the shooting spree.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Oops…forgot to attach the link to the news report.

  10. […] seen in the Virginia Tech tragedy, an organization facing a crisis will see a huge surge in traffic to its Web site. Therefore, it is […]

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