Educate. Mitigate. Communicate.

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Posted At: April 14, 2008 3:21 PM
by Cecilia Hughes, Contributing Writer

Lately, the adventures of college have taken on a new dimension. In addition to the anticipation of autumn football games, blossoming friendships and new opportunities bridging the gap between academia and the real world, a new cautionary heaviness faces students—an underlying emotional fabric consisting of fear, vulnerability, concern and helplessness.

We never think it will happen to us. So, when the unexpected occurs, we attempt to figure out what signs or precautions blinded us, and we try to adhere to the previously determined protocols—which in the past may have been shrugged off—before it’s too late.

Typically seen as a safe haven, the classroom is the last place in which a person should feel violated. While it may be scary to think of these hypothetical situations, it is necessary to prepare ourselves as students, administration, faculty and staff, and campus allies for any crisis that can deteriorate the vibrancy and comfort of our campus communities.

On a college campus, a crisis can be any single event or situation that threatens the health, safety or well-being of the campus community and requires immediate attention. Such events have the potential to impact and overwhelm emotions, communication channels and effective coping skills.

So, what do we do? Where do we go from here?

Amidst the confrontation, it is necessary to seek clarity. We need to prepare ourselves for risks, threats and potential crises, and we need to determine what has or hasn’t worked in precedent situations.

On April 16, 2007, devastation emerged and unfolded from the spirited campus of Virginia Tech, home of the Hokies. The world was stunned after a student went on a shooting rampage.

On February 14, 2008, at Northern Illinois University, a man dressed in black opened fire, killing five and injuring 21 before ending the violent attack with a self-inflicted gunshot.

Due to these recent tragedies, college campuses have revised their emergency action plans and crisis responses in order to reinstate and ensure safety and protection. Forums, crisis management teams and technology-based communication tools, such as mass text messages and e-mails, have been implemented on campuses throughout the nation for use in the event of an emergency.

Larry Hincker, associate vice president of the Office of University Relations at Virginia Tech, shares his eight-point plan designed to help prepare and respond to a crisis:

1.    You must have a plan.
2.    Your president has to be visible.
3.    You have to have a designated spokesperson.
4.    You have to have a communications command center.
5.    Communicate as much as you can, as often as you can.
6.    Stay on message.
7.    Use experts when necessary.
8.    Flood your target audiences with messages.

When following through with each step, Hincker encourages effective communication.

“When you go through a crisis, everyone involved—students, parents, faculty—needs as much information as possible,” said Hincker. “People want the basics, the simple stuff. When you communicate during an emergency, you can’t rely on just one distribution channel. Know your target audience, state the facts, repeat information and have a plan in place.”

What crisis management lessons do you think campus tragedies such as the Virginia Tech shootings should teach PR practitioners?

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