PR Vet Traces Poor Handling of Crisis to Lawyers

Beneath a Fox News.com headline, Parents Demand Firing of Virginia Tech President, Police Chief Over Poor Handling of Mass Shooting, this morning, is an article about the parents of a Virginia Tech student expressing outrage at what they call an “inadequate response by college brass to the worst mass-murder shooting in American history.” The cruxt of the story, fast developing into a public relations nightmare for the university, is this:

John and Jennifer Shourds of Lovettsville, Va. demanded the immediate firings of University President Charles Steger and Virginia Tech Campus Police Chief W.R. Flinchum who he said “screwed up” the handling of separate shooting incidents that left 33 students dead, including the shooter.

“My God, if someone shoots somebody there should be an immediate lockdown of the campus,” said John Shourds. “They totally blew it. The president blew it, campus police blew it.”

As a longtime public relations professional prior to joining the blogosphere full-time, I’ve been in situations as “the public face” of organizations in crisis on many occasions. From military aircraft crashes and deactivation of nuclear missile sites to murder-suicides and charges of executive malfeasance involving hundreds of millions of dollars, I’ve seen the best and worst of people in leadership positions as they responded to crises.

In nearly every situation, best results surfaced when I was able to be proactive with the news media and other interested parties. On occasions when I was prevented from being proactive by executive order, I could usually trace the root of the problem back to a lawyer sitting in the corner office with the CEO.

By their nature, lawyers are cautious. Unfortunately, sometimes, they’re too cautious. In the case of the tragic chain of events at Virginia Tech yesterday, I’m willing to speculate that a small group of people — namely the university’s president, chief legal counsel, vice president of communications (PR) and, by phone, the police chief — spent too much time anguishing over the possible repercussions, legal and otherwise, of the day’s first two shooting deaths.

Had they followed the communications plan that should have been in place following a deadly 2006 incident involving an escaped prisoner who found his way onto the campus of Virginia Tech, they might have avoided not only a public relations nightmare but, quite possibly, the 31 deaths that followed the initial two.

More to come…

One thought on “PR Vet Traces Poor Handling of Crisis to Lawyers

  1. No doubt heads should roll in both VA Tech administrators and local police…incompetence and high salaries!
    Furthermore, which VA Tech administrators determined that the killer was academically, and socially prepared to obtain a privalegded seat at the University. His school history must be documented from the time he came to the USA. Who wrote the letters of recommendation? What were his SAT scores, extra curricular activities etc. You know all the requirements Math, English, History, 3 yrs foreign language and social accomplishments that our USA students sweat over when waiting for an acceptance from VA Tech. Or did he just check off the box that said Korean, and get acceptance over an American student? I’m curious how did he get in?

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