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Moving Forward Without Moving On: Crisis Recovery After Mass Tragedy

 

Larry Hincker

 

​The depravity and immensity of the killings shock even today, five years later. All told, one very disturbed young man with easy access to powerful killing weapons murdered 32 people (including two before the mass shooting) and injured more than two dozen others.

How does a president—how does an institution—cope with the gravity and pain of a crisis like that? No administrator, senior executive, or communications professional ever thinks he or she might deal with a tragedy of this magnitude. Yet, every university president will deal with crisis on some scale.

We at Virginia Tech are not crisis experts. But we share our experiences here to show how the university worked its way from crisis, to response, and eventually through recovery after the mass tragedy that befell us in spring 2007.

The Public Face

When faced with a crisis of this magnitude, there is no book. University administrators shift to auto-pilot and draw upon life’s experiences. From my previous jobs including time in the nuclear power industry, I knew, if only intuitively, that the CEO was the key to crisis recovery. And the first rule of Crisis Communication 101 is: Put the CEO up front.

Beginning with news conferences (three on the first day alone), and through the week, Virginia Tech President Charles Steger was available to the media. He took the tough questions on live national news programs. He visited with injured students and the grieving families of lost loved ones. He spoke and met with many student groups. He led the administrative team in dealing with myriad near-term and long-term aspects of the crisis.

 A university president, indeed any CEO of an institution in crisis, has a symbolic role that can’t be shirked.

“When I first became president, I didn’t fully understand the role of symbolism. By the time of the crisis, I fully understood and embraced its importance,” Steger told me in an interview for this article.

In a 2008 article, The Chronicle of Higher Education wrote of him on the one-year anniversary “…His calm performance as the public face of the university has been crucial.” Steger said, “I know it was important to convey a sense of confidence to help stabilize the organization.”

Transparency

Let’s face it. Reputation management begins at the outset of any crisis. Transparency and access go a long way in building trust with the media. In the first eight days, we conducted 11 news conferences. For the entirety of April 2007, we had more than 1,000 journalists and crew roaming the campus, interviewing anyone who would talk.

We tried our best to be accessible (to the degree that any organization can be accessible to hundreds of journalists). We tried not to control who spoke with the media. Not every administrator was qualified to speak, wanted to speak, or should have spoken. The news office still must manage the message, but one cannot avoid the media during a crisis. And besides… their megaphones are bigger than mine.

The Power of Community

If there is any lasting legacy or mental image of our tragedy, it’s the many poignant interviews with Virginia Tech students. The world saw in their faces and heard in their words the powerful sense of community on this campus.

We are a big university that acts like a small community. That is not created during a crisis. We were fortunate; it was already part of our DNA. In his 2008 interview with The Chronicle, Steger observed that “had we not had that sense of community before, I think dealing with this tragedy would’ve been much more difficult.”

There are ways to use the power of community to help an organization see through the fog and move forward.

  • Listen to your students. Student leaders on this campus played an important role. They sat on many committees such as one that dealt with the future use of Norris Hall, the primary site of the shootings. Their voices were instrumental in the ultimate design and location of the April 16 memorial.
  • Faculty leadership. The faculty took the lead and developed the grading scenario for the semester’s end. As we returned to class one week after the shootings, we wondered how we should deal with students who needed to be home or couldn’t face the pressure. The faculty created three scenarios—take your grades as they are and go home, take your grades as they are and return to class, or return to class and compete as you normally would through semester’s end. It was an inspired solution to a complex psychological dilemma.
  • Vest authority at the right level. Hundreds of decisions must be made quickly but delicately as an organization recovers from crisis. For us, the future of Norris Hall might have created controversy. Some called for its demolition or conversion to a memorial. But what university could immediately take off line 68,000 square feet of classrooms, offices, and sophisticated labs? Emotions were intense. A committee of faculty and administrators from the affected groups reviewed the options and recommended to the president the reopening of Norris Hall. However, it saved for another group the ultimate disposition of the second-floor classrooms where the murders took place. That organization accepted proposals from the campus, two of which were ultimately accepted and melded. Today, the Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention and the Global Technology Center exist in those spaces.
Dealing with Heartbreak

I often heard reporters ask the president something along the lines of, “How does it feel being griever-in-chief?” In a April 2008 interview with The Roanoke Times, Steger said that, “While I had no experience dealing with a problem like this, it was important for me to meet personally with as many people as possible, particularly our student affairs staff and police. I told folks it was okay to cry….and seeing a counselor is not a sign of weakness.” We recognized the grieving process is complex, long-tailed, and unique to each person.

 
It is important to recognize the many constituencies in a crisis and ensure that, in response, the right parts of the organization touch them. Our crisis touched students, faculty, staff, alumni, student families, the local community, higher education administrators, state legislators, the families of victims, victims of other crises, and the list goes on and on.

Communications

During and after a crisis, humans are information sinks. One cannot communicate too much. Hardly a day went by during the first few months after the event that we did not send a campus-wide email. Nowadays, the website is the university’s front door. It is the go-to place for just about every communication. Ensure your infrastructure can handle high traffic. In the event of a crisis, your website will get hammered.

Moreover, I was surprised at how often university offices looked to the central communications group—my department—for guidance. Be prepared to provide talking points for leadership, alumni, admissions, orientation leaders, faculty groups, and many others.

Leadership Maintains the Focus on Essentials

Often during the months after the tragedy, but still within the “chronic phase” of the crisis, I would marvel at the university president and his steely resolve. I recently asked him, “Did you have a plan, even a mental outline, of how we’d navigate through this nightmare?” He answered that he did not, “But I consciously thought about keeping us focused on mission. As president, my job is to articulate the priorities of the institution. I was a long-distance runner. I knew that we had to keep focused on the future and be true to our mission as a university. It was hard, but I forced myself to think beyond the crisis.”

Steger maintains that it is important to have a clear vision of the university’s future and its sense of purpose. Listen to as many people as possible, but know your values and make decisions in the best interests of the institution over the long run. One example came when the nation spontaneously made financial donations, large and small, to Virginia Tech, ultimately totaling more than $10 million. “We had a plan for using the monies,” Steger said in a recent discussion with me. “But after announcing it, we caught some heat. In the end, I listened to my inner voice and decided the monies would be best used by the people harmed the most—the families and victims of the tragedy. So, we gave it away.”

Moving Forward

On day three of our crisis, I told assembled reporters at a news conference that we would not be defined by the event. I’m not sure I really believed it. I knew this national tragedy would always be associated with my university, but that there was so much more to the place. I hoped that our sense of community—the “Hokie Spirit”—along with the fundamental values, strength, and strong reputation of this great American institution would prevail.

By many measures, we did prevail. We exceeded our fall 2007 enrollment targets and continued to grow. Applications continued to rise for several years and remain strong. The average GPA for incoming students has improved each year since. We raised more than $1.1 billion in a recently concluded campaign (that had been scheduled to publicly launch two weeks after the shootings). We’ve begun new research institutes and partnered on a new medical school.

Virginia Tech no longer has name recognition problems. And while mass tragedy is no way to build name recognition, I believe that many people today associate the name with a university that prevailed through crisis and continues to thrive as a high-quality land-grant university with a solid reputation of academic excellence.


Larry Hincker is associate vice president for university relations at Virginia Tech.



 

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