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The Tragedy at Virginia Tech: Crisis Communications on the Web: 

The Tragedy at Virginia Tech: Crisis Communications on the Web Michael Dame Director of Web Communications Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

About myself: 

At Virginia Tech since November 2005 Served in myriad roles developing and managing Tribune Co. websites for 8+ years Crises during my tenure managing OrlandoSentinel.com: Hurricane season of 2004 (3 storms hit Orlando) Shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003 9/11 tragedy and aftermath in 2001 Central Florida tornadoes of 1998 (42 dead, 260 injured) 10+ years experience as a newspaper reporter Contributed to coverage of 1990 Gainesville/UF murders Primary reporter of NCAA investigation of UF in 1989-90 About myself

About Virginia Tech: 

About Virginia Tech Founded in 1872 as a land-grant college Now a comprehensive research university with largest number of degree offerings in Virginia Total enrollment of more than 28,000 from all 50 states and more than 100 countries More than 190,000 living alumni University motto: Ut Prosim (That I May Serve)

After this session, you will…: 

After this session, you will… Be better prepared for working in crisis mode for an extended period Further appreciate the power of the Web to advance your communication goals – even during times of extreme crisis Walk away armed with new ideas for your own crisis communications plan Be just a little freaked out (but that’s OK!)

Recap of the tragedy: 

Recap of the tragedy Monday, April 16: In separate events, a student killed 32 and injured 25 before taking own life Worst mass shooting in U.S. history Classes canceled for one week; Blacksburg campus closed for two days During the week of the shootings, some 715 media members, 280 news organizations (80 international), and 140 satellite trucks descended on Blacksburg

How it started on 4/16: 

How it started on 4/16 9:58 a.m. Alert posted to home page. The alert reads “Emergency. Gunman on Campus, Stay Indoors and Away from Windows. See details.” 9:26 a.m. Blast e-mail with subject line “Shooting on campus” sent, informing campus community of the shooting incident at West Ambler Johnston Hall (AJ). 9:31 a.m. Alert posted to home page regarding the AJ shooting incident. 9:44 a.m. Web staff overhears chatter on police scanner about gunshots at Norris Hall. Phone call placed to IT Webhosting alerting them to need for enhanced server support. I cancel our 10 a.m. WebComm staff meeting and call for shift to crisis mode.

Goals for day of tragedy: 

Goals for day of tragedy Communicate essential information Home page all about brevity and clarity; click to inside page for more details Navigation reduced to pertinent sections: About Virginia Tech, Administration, Campus Maps, Campus Buildings Expand server load balancing for VT.edu Establish communication workflows with Joint Information Center (JIC)

How it continued on 4/16: 

How it continued on 4/16 12:40 p.m. Right after our first news conference, a podcast of Dr. Steger’s statement is posted, along with notice of cancellation of all events. Note our “lite” home page layout. 2:33 p.m. IT Webhosting brings third server online to support VT.edu. 9:59 a.m. Began preparing our “lite” home page to move to production. 10:03 a.m. Began pulling Flash elements and graphics from home page. 10:17 a.m. “Lite” home page launched with new alert: “All Classes Cancelled; Stay where you are.” 10:33 a.m. Shut down VT News database to reduce load; alert “details page” moved to VT.edu domain. 10:44 a.m. IT Webhosting brings second server online to support VT.edu.


Normal home page before 4/16


“Lite” home page on 4/16

Where we were: 

Where we were Norris Hall West AJ Media Bldg JIC approximately 1.5 miles

Joint Information Center: 

Joint Information Center

WebComm Central (a.k.a. my office): 

WebComm Central (a.k.a. my office)

Communication workflow: 

Communication workflow Decision was made for WebComm team to maintain base in Media Building Campus PIOs were assigned to “beats,” such as … Info about victims and the status of releasing names Statements by university and law enforcement officials Updates about counseling resources PIOs would e-mail and call in real time when new information needed to be released Radio crew recorded all conferences, returned to Media Building to edit; MP3s online quickly Newest update was posted at top of the “details page” in blog-like fashion

“Details page” – 4/16 late afternoon: 

“Details page” – 4/16 late afternoon

Dealing with distractions: 

Dealing with distractions So many calls and e-mails from family and friends, so little (or no) time to talk Inundated with calls/emails from vendors offering free services Requests from former media colleagues in Florida who wanted to “localize” the story by interviewing me My office has only TV on floor, so it became the viewing site for press conferences

Late 4/16 / early 4/17 strategizing: 

Late 4/16 / early 4/17 strategizing Connected with Larry Hincker regarding design and content ideas for VT.edu Held a WebComm team huddle early morning 4/17 to plan the next 24-48 hours As much spirit rally as planning session Checked in on personal and family situations Mapped out new website architecture on whiteboard Discussed hardware/software/server needs Set deadline to launch new “In Memoriam” design for home page by 2 p.m. Convocation

Other things we decided: 

Other things we decided Think multimedia; think Web 2.0 Put students and families first in all decisions Choose words carefully to aid healing Find ways to engage the community Create condolences/thoughts/prayers website Post messages from other universities Set up live video streaming for Convocation Relocate webcam to stream Candlelight Vigil Suspend VT News daily e-mail

Home page around noon, 4/17: 

Home page around noon, 4/17

First version of “In Memoriam” design: 

First version of “In Memoriam” design

Virtual participation in our grieving: 

Virtual participation in our grieving 35,000 entries in 72 hours

Second version of “In Memoriam”: 

Second version of “In Memoriam” Launched 4/18 During Convocation, Dr. Nikki Giovanni provided exactly what we needed in a poem … words around which to build our messages to the world: We Are the Hokies We Are Virginia Tech We Will Prevail

Third version of “In Memoriam”: 

Third version of “In Memoriam” The university began releasing names on 4/19, which we had to display prominently on the home page Very moving and poignant photos were coming in from our photo team

Photo galleries quickly assembled: 

Photo galleries quickly assembled

A humongous traffic spike …: 

A humongous traffic spike …

… that tested our IT infrastructure: 

… that tested our IT infrastructure We transferred 432GB of data on April 16 (Normal day: ~ 15 GB) Only two months in 2006 eclipsed that figure

April 16 traffic summary: 

April 16 traffic summary Trend over time: March-May 2007 Is your IT infrastructure prepared for a spike like this?

Transitioning to “normalcy”: 

Transitioning to “normalcy” The situation: Classes set to resume Monday, April 23 Tragedy still an open wound on campus Strong desire to begin recovery University needed to provide source of strength, leadership, resolve Determined not to let Virginia Tech be defined by this tragic event

Questions to ask yourself: 

Questions to ask yourself Is timing right to return to a more “normal” state, or should we stay “black”? How do we continue to honor those lost? How can the website be a catalyst for healing and recovery? What will the victims’ families think? How should we present “normal” content?

Our decision …: 

Our decision … Use the VT.edu home page to symbolize: The beginning of healing Remembrance of our fallen Hokies Rebirth, by using springtime photos Determination to continue inventing the future And that meant coming up with yet another home page design that blended “normal” with “in memoriam”

An overwhelming response …: 

An overwhelming response … “Thank you for making a most amazing homepage for Virginia Tech as it works through this crisis. I have been extremely impressed by the beauty, the professionalism, and yes, the accessibility.” “You have created the dignified web presence everyone needs and in an amazingly short time.” “I sit here crying..... and am AMAZED at how well you are maintaining VT's main website.” “I am an alumnus and prior to April 16 I only checked the website on rare occasions. This horror has affected me deeply and I find myself drawn to the website every day, just to reconnect.”

… more responses …: 

… more responses … “I'm sure you know how many eyes have been on the website in the last 10 days, and I just wanted to pass along my compliments. At all times, the page has been tasteful, informative, and even uplifting. Your current mode of transitioning back into "normal" is just outstanding - it's a visual representation to those of us away from campus that we as a university are moving forward while taking time to grieve.” “Today as I opened the Virginia Tech web page I saw the white background with the picture of the students walking in front of the spring tree. Wow! That said so much! Go Hokies!”

… and my favorite response …: 

“Thank you for the constant updates to the Virginia Tech website during the past week. For many of us with loved ones on campus, it has been a source of untainted, reliable information about the events and the plans to move forward. The site is professional of course but is clearly a reflection of someone that cares deeply about VT and the students and faculty there.” … and my favorite response …

Lessons learned (and reinforced): 

Lessons learned (and reinforced) Surround yourself with people who care Put students and their families first always, with faculty and staff right behind Provide multiple options for accessing news and information (text, audio, video, photos) Keep it simple; Don’t overdo it; Let the facts and your audience tell the story If resources allow, place someone at your JIC

How to get started: 

How to get started If you aren’t joined at the hip with your IT team, schedule surgery now. Define crisis communication scenarios and match each with available communication tools. Develop a “lite” version of your home page. Define roles and responsibilities in advance. Conduct regularly scheduled “fire drills.” Ensure that politics can be left at the door during crisis. Plan for family matters – kids, pets, etc. Surround yourself with cool, calm, collected “doers.” Expect to get very little sleep. Don’t forget about you.

Our revamped “lite” home page: 

Our revamped “lite” home page

Thank You!: 

Thank You! Mike Dame Director of Web Communications Virginia Tech (540) 231-8508 | mdame@vt.edu I’d be happy to take your questions …

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