Preserving the Hokie Spirit at Virginia Tech

August 20, 2007

Copyright © 2007 PRSA. All rights reserved.

By Frances Ward-Johnson, Ph.D., APR

The following article appears in the summer issue of The Strategist.

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University became the site of the deadliest campus shooting in U.S. history after Seung-Hui Cho went on a rampage April 16, murdering 32 fellow students and faculty members and wounding 25 others before killing himself. Just five days shy of the eighth anniversary of the mass killings at Columbine High School, the massacre at Virginia Tech, a university with 26,000 students in the quiet country town of Blacksburg, Va., instilled horror and shock across the country. Adding to the stunned reaction was the revelation that most of the victims had died in the second shooting spree, more than two hours after police were called to the first shooting.

The media and public response was massive. In addition to working with more than 400 worldwide media outlets that descended on campus, university authorities had to tend to traumatized students, faculty, families, alumni and the public, both national and local, all who wanted answers. Larry G.  Hincker, associate vice president of the Office of University Relations, was charged with providing those answers and managing a crisis that made headlines around the world. During an in-person interview with The Strategist in June, Hincker, the university’s senior communications official since 1989, discussed working with the media, being sensitive to students’ and community needs, and preserving the seemingly indomitable Hokie spirit. Excerpts from the interview follow.

What is it like to be the top PR official when facing an unprecedented experience?

Larry G. Hincker: For a little old PR guy in the mountains of Virginia, the volume has just been amazing. I had a veteran CBS broadcast journalist say to me during the first week, “I’ve traveled all around the world, but I’ve never seen anything like this.”

What can you tell other PR professionals that you couldn’t tell them prior to facing this crisis?

Hincker: I can tell you some things we’ve always known. You have to know who your target audiences are, and you’ve got to communicate to them. In our particular case, it was the student body, parents, alumni, people in the region, faculty and staff. We were as addled as could be while dealing with this crisis, but we still said “OK. We’ve got to get something out to our target audiences.”

Our communications program is successful because we have multiple distribution vehicles. We can get to people via e-mail, surface mail, our publications and our Web site. Web sites are 24/7, instantaneous anywhere in the world, so your Web site is a powerful tool.

What have you learned about crisis communications?

Hincker: One of the first things you learn is you have to have a plan in place. It doesn’t matter whether it’s sophisticated or simple — you’ve got to have one. Frankly, the simpler the plan, the better.

Did the PR plan that you had in place work?

Hincker: Nobody can ever plan for the media response that we had. For example, in our plan we have  locations for media centers in case that we have a fire, flood or other kind of event that would draw media. The assumption is that you’re not going to be able to take care of your media response in a short period of time, so you set up a media center, which is what we did. But we had to take everything off the table that was in our plan because we had 125 satellite trucks and approximately 400 to 500 journalists. At that point, we asked, What is the biggest facility we have where they can park a bunch of trucks? That’s when you realize a plan is only a framework. I’m paraphrasing Dwight Eisenhower, who said, “In war, planning is everything. In battle, plans go out the window.” The idea is that you’ve got to plan for it, but then you’ve got to react.

What did you learn about the media during this crisis?

Hincker: In a major horrific crisis, you’re going to have a range of responses, and you’re going to see the kind of sensational coverage that you’ve come to expect from some organizations. I didn’t see anything unexpected, and, frankly, some of the media helped us. The producer for CBS News was helpful to me. Our president needed to speak to the nation, and this guy did all of the leg work to assist us. There was so much going on that I relied on this particular producer.

What strategic messages did you try to convey in the first few days?

Hincker: We wanted [the media] to know that our most important audience was the victims’ families. The second most important thing was to try to help the campus cope. The third thing is that Virginia Tech is not going to be defined by this event. The messaging, of course, changed throughout, but for  the first few days, that is what we wanted to get across to the world.

How many calls did the university log the first few days?

Hincker: My secretary and bookkeeper logged more than 350 reporters’ phone calls the first day. The phone was ringing nonstop. Fortunately, university officials put priority on several phone lines throughout the university, and mine was one of them, so all the calls got through. We couldn’t return them — there was just no way.  That’s when you decide that the press conference format is the only feasible way to communicate with the world.

How did you keep track of the changing information on a daily basis?

Hincker: I carried a different folder with me every day of the week. Sometimes I would write notes to myself, or if I was in a meeting and received a new piece of information, I’d throw it in there. Also, that’s where I kept my press conference statements. I made notes to myself of key points that I wanted to get across that day. Every communicator knows in any crisis, you’ve got to know what it is you want to get across.

How did you prepare the university’s senior administrators for the many press conferences?

Hincker: Events were happening so fast that we didn’t have time for many prepared statements. Often, I would brief them on the questions we’d had the day before and would let them know the kinds of questions they might expect.

So you thought it was imperative to begin communicating with the press, even if you didn’t have the answers?

Hincker: You’ve just got to face the questions. I violated crisis communications 101, which says appoint a single spokesperson and only that person interacts with the media. I had 500 journalists on this campus; that was not going to work. The second thing is that this crisis was so complex, so fast moving, that I was the one constant. I was the only person who was at all 10 of those press conferences, but I brought in the different experts.

How did you handle inaccuracies in the media? Some TV reporters would preface a segment with, “Students are upset with the university,” only to have students say the opposite in the interview.

Hincker: I was fully aware of the tone of the interviews with our students. The media found a few facts, jumped to conclusions and had to find blame. That’s normal. Overall, the media coverage was good. Some people were less than honorable, but it was a natural reaction.

I told people the journalists are going through the same grieving process as we are. Some of them have college students of their own, some are angry, some are shocked and some are in disbelief. But the amazing thing was that you couldn’t have scripted this Hokie spirit. People had a chance to peer into the soul of Virginia Tech, and what you saw of our leadership, alumni, students and faculty was genuine.

At one point, students asked the media to leave campus. Was this prompted by your office?

Hincker: I received a formal request from the Student Government Association, but I wrote them back saying we can’t [ask the media to leave], but I’ll work with you. I actually sent suggestions to the student body on what to do if they bumped into reporters.

We also posted signs saying, “Notice to all media, please respect our grieving process. We ask you to not go beyond these doors.” We had to do this because many of the media wanted to get students in the classroom to see how they were doing. But that was an emotional time, and we just said, “Look, we’re going to be as open as we possibly can with the media, but we’re not going to let you inside the classroom. There’s something sacred about the classroom, and it has already been violated.”

What do you think your staff did well during the crisis?

Hincker: The  success of our response was the connection between the news operation and the Web operation. I am very proud of this. During the 10 press conferences in eight days, all the statements or releases would get posted to the Web site. Anybody visiting the site could immediately see all of the new information. 

Tell me more about the success of the Web site.

Hincker: We’ve been through crises before — usually relating to a weather event. We use several vehicles for emergency communication, and Web posting is one of them. When you get a lot of demand on your site, it can get bogged down. Our site, like many university Web sites, is very sophisticated — lots of files, graphics and connections. We have what we call a “lite site.” It stands in reserve on our server. During a crisis, we take the regular home page down and put that one up because the file is very small and it can load very quickly. On a normal Monday morning, we would see between 8,000 to 9,000 visitors per hour on our Web site. By noon of April 16, we had 148,000 visitors. That’s a sixteenfold increase.

Were you bothered by the criticism that the university should have communicated with the students after the first shooting by text message as well as e-mail?

Hincker: First, lots of students get e-mails on their phones. Second, we have numerous ways of communicating. We had a plan for a text-messaging system that we were going to put in place. We were getting ready to go with [the new system]. The system is now online. I’ll be able to send a message via voice mail, e-mail, text messaging and instant messaging all with just one portal. If you’re looking at emergency communication, it’s the same principle as regular communication: You can’t rely on just one distribution channel.

At the last press conference related to the crisis, you received a standing ovation from the media. What happened that day?

Hincker: We had gotten to the point where even the media understood we were covering the same ground. In fact, at one or two of the press conferences, a reporter would yell to another, “They’ve already answered that question.” Or someone else would scream, “That was answered yesterday. Look on the Web  site.” 

By the last press conference, everybody had asked all the questions they wanted to ask. I said to them, “I don’t know where else to go, guys. This ain’t the White House.” They gave me an ovation. I said it was because they were so tired that they didn’t know what they were doing. But my statement was my effort at saying, “It’s time to dismantle this and move on.” I had asked some people who were working with me, “How do you know when the crisis is over?” They said, “Sometimes you just declare it over and move on.” And that’s what I did. 

Did all of the media leave that day?

Hincker: We allowed them to work through the weekend in the media center we set up. Many of them were international reporters with nowhere else to go. Some people were sleeping there. We fed them and gave them coffee. I got an e-mail from a Tech alum who is a CNN producer. She said her colleagues kept asking, “Why are all the people so nice around here?” And she said, “That’s just the way my university is.” 

Who supported you throughout the crisis?

Hincker: I had the crisis management organization Firestorm, which volunteered its services to the university. They were here with me and very helpful. I also relied on various colleagues, including Carol Wood, my good friend and counterpart at the University of Virginia.

What are your future PR plans for the university?

Hincker: My university is not going to be defined by this event. One of the things we want to do is to get back to having people write stories about Virginia Tech and what Virginia Tech does. We want them to focus on our fabulous students, our great research, our world-class faculty and our advanced use of technology. Those are the  things that this institution was known for in the past, and that’s what we want to be known for in the future. 

Hincker and Jeffrey Douglas, APR, Fellow PRSA, director of public relations, Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, Virginia Tech, will present a workshop titled “Crisis Communication and Lessons Learned” at the PRSA 2007 International Conference in Philadelphia. Their session is at 10-11:15 a.m. on Oct. 22. Please visit www.prsa.org/conf2007 for more on workshops as well as updates and registration.

Frances Ward-Johnson, Ph.D., APR, is an associate professor at Elon University in North Carolina where she teaches courses in PR principles, research and writing. Prior to her academic career, she led the PR function for an international organization. She is a former journalist.

Comments

Harry W. Rhulen says:

Larry Hincker is a wonderful and modest man. My organization, Firestorm Solutions, LLC. was priveledged to provide crisis and media support to Mr. Hincker and his staff. They performed at an extremely high level under the most adverse of circumstances. His experience and lessons learned will be a great education for anyone attending the seminar Harry Rhulen CEO Firestorm Solutions, LLC 29260 U.S. Highway 40 Golden, Colorado 80401 Tel: 800.321.2219 X112 Mobile: 720.244.8114 Fax: 800.418.9088 hrhulen@firestorm.com www.firestorm.com

Aug. 24, 2007

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