Remembering the Virginia Tech Tragedy with Mike Dame’s account of how web communications were handled

April 16th, 2009 Karine Joly 4 Comments

It’s been 2 years.

I remember very clearly that day.

I only learned about the tragedy around 11AM that morning. I was unplugged to work on a project, and it’s just when I checked my email and the email listservs that I saw a message referring to something terrible going on at Virginia Tech. I checked VT website and decided to share the info and a screenshot with this blog’s readers right away.

There was no Twitter at that time, or more accurately it didn’t have the following it now has. I can’t stop thinking that if the microblogging platform had been around, maybe, some lives could have been saved.

The Virginia Tech Tragedy marked a day in American and higher ed history. That day, Mike Dame, Director of Web Communications at VT and his team wrote an important page in the higher ed web communication book. They literally wrote the manual to handle web communications in such a terrible crisis.

In the following day, they were criticized – as the institution was – mainly by mainstream media and experts for failing to communicate… But, at the end of the day, Mike and his team did a great work.

2 years ago, I kept track of the homepage changes on a post to compile an archive that could offer an account of the great work of Mike’s team.

When things settled down a bit, I told Mike that he should tell the community how things went and how his team handled them. I worked with Mike on a webinar (that allowed us to raise $4,300 for the Hokie Fund of Virginia Tech) that became a famous presentation given later that year at many higher ed conferences.

If you didn’t get a chance to watch that presentation yet, here’s your chance. Now that Mike has left higher education to work in healthcare, I think it’s time to release this presentation to our community for free.

From the Inside Out: Lessons Learned in Crisis Web Communications after the Virginia Tech Tragedy (69 minutes – recorded on July 10, 2007)
Michael Dame, Director of Web Communications at Virginia Tech, will provide an insider look and analysis of his institution’s Web communications after the tragedy, helping every institution understand what happened and prepare for the unthinkable and the unplanned.

Streaming file link
Downloading file link
You’ll need to use “hokie” as the password to get to these files and you might have to use Internet Explorer (sorry it’s an old file and Firefox doesn’t seem to play well with this version of WebEx recording)

You can also have a look at what I’ve written for the past 2 years about the VT Tragedy and the topic of crisis communication.

And, to honor the memory of the victims, why not tell us now what you’ve learned or have changed on your campus in terms of emergency notifications or security by posting a comment.

4 Responses

  1. I remember what a terrific job you did covering Virginia Tech’s response to the situation. Yes, at the time the administration was heavily criticized for their response. But in retrospect, they managed the situation well, considering the magnitude of it.

    Your post prompted me to do one of my own, and I responded to your “what have we learned” question there. Here’s an abbreviated version:

    On our campus, as on practically every other campus in the nation, we have signed up for a mass notification system that relies on text, phone and email alerts in an attempt to more quickly notify students in the event of a crisis. We’ve tested the system a few times, with decent results, but these notification systems simply cannot speed the messages to a broad community via text in a fast enough time. The bandwidth simply isn’t there. It’s an improvement, but is it enough?

    What else has changed? The sense that our campuses must be more open and accountable to the public, especially the families of our students, about our safety measures.

    Our universities are also more involved in “profiling” students who might be at risk of committing the same sort of massacre as the disturbed gunman, Seung-Hui Cho.

    This more active, early-intervention approach coincides with a change in the public mindset about just how safe our college campuses can be. Most campuses are designed as open, inviting places, so security on a broad scale — in terms of geographic coverage — is a huge challenge. But the public seems to expect us to make our grounds and our facilities as safe as possible. Which raises the question: How safe is “safe”? How much risk can we eliminate?

  2. Karine Joly says:

    Thanks for sharing your lessons learned, Andy. Now, let me go read your blog post.

  3. Mike Dame says:

    Karine, thank you for such kind words on this anniversary. I continue to be touched by all the support Virginia Tech received and continues to receive in the aftermath of that terrible tragedy.

    I appreciate you opening up my presentation for anyone to download for free. We, and the higher education community, learned so many lessons. I just feel extremely fortunate to have been surrounded by a fantastic group of dedicated communication professionals at Virginia Tech — our leader, Larry Hincker, and my web staff at the time: Bruce Harper, Elaine Oliver, Kim Haines, and Marty Martin. And all the others too numerous to mention, but you know who you are.

    I left VT in July 2008 to become director of interactive media at Carilion Clinic in nearby Roanoke, Va., but I am still involved in the higher education community thanks to the VT-Carilion partnership that is opening the VTC School of Medicine in 2010. So I am still, and always will be, part of the Virginia Tech family.

    Most of all, take time today to remember the 32 Hokies we lost two years ago, as well as those who were injured and continue to heal physical and emotional wounds. They are the true heroes.

  4. […] about the Virginia Tech Tragedy and the $4300 we were able to raise for the Hokie Fund – I released Mike’s webinar for free last week) and a couple of lows (The free inaugural webinar in June 2007 with Dr. Michael Wesch and James […]

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