The Virgina Tech shootings: a critical evaluation of the communications response

Essay, 2011

7 Pages, Grade: 1.0

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Critically evaluate a case study of reputation, issue or crisis management:

The Virginia Tech shootings

On Monday April 16 2007, the relative peace of the campus of ‘Virginia Tech’ (Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University) in Blacksburg, Virginia, United States, was shattered when, in two separate attacks, a student shot 32 people and wounded many others, before taking his own life.

English student Cho Seung-Hui, who had suffered from documented mental health issues (BBC News 2007), initially shot two people at a dormitory. More than two and a half hours later, he killed 31 others, and then himself, across the campus in a classroom building.

The attack was, and remains, one of the “deadliest shooting rampage[s] in American history” (Hauser 2007).

But, even before the dust had begun to settle on the tragedy, serious questions were being asked of the University’s crisis communications response: “why was there a lag of more than two hours after the first shootings before an alarm was e-mailed campus wide?...And more generally, some security experts wondered, was the school's crisis planning and emergency communications system up to the task?” (Fox News 2007).

Four months after the shooting, an investigation panel determined that “lives could have been saved” [CBC News 2007) if a campuswide warning had been issued sooner. Lack of decisive action shown by university administrators was deemed to have contributed to the loss of life that day [CBC News 2007). Indeed, the institution was this year ordered by the US Department of Education to pay a $55,000 fine for “violating federal law by waiting too long to notify students” of the shootings (Boston Herald 2011).

Here, I will attempt to critically evaluate the communications response during this crisis, applying knowledge and understanding of the principals of crisis communications.

I will consider what mistakes were made during the crisis and how communications could have been improved. I will look at the crisis from the perspective of a communicator working at a large university and consider what lessons can be learnt for the future.

One of the main challenges for communicators working in “educational institutions, especially large sprawling universities” (Burton 2007) is communicating with large numbers of people, staff and students alike, quickly and effectively. Various different methods should be employed, depending on the situation and the ways in which these audiences access information. In the case of Virginia Tech, a campuswide email was eventually sent to inform staff and students of the attack, but this was seen as neither quick nor effective enough to prevent further deaths.

Nowadays, social media such as Twitter and Facebook are proving increasingly effective tools for communicating with student populations, as are intranet-style systems and websites, as well as email. It is imperative that crisis plans should consider their use alongside more traditional communications methods. Social media channels were in their relative infancy during the Virginia Tech shootings, Twitter having been launched less than a year before in 2006 (Crunchbase n.d). But, according to Palen (2008) were used in a “collective and bottom-up” way, rather than orchestrated and top-down” to communicate the impact of the situation. Indeed, she states: “compiled information across all online lists correctly identified the victims beforethe university released their names to the public” (Palen 2008) demonstrating that even five years ago, online communication was significant. This perhaps undermined Virginia Tech as a credible source of fast, accurate information during the crisis and existing social and online media could have been more effectively used as a way of quickly communicating information to numerous people.

As already stated, communication at Virginia Tech during the crisis relied on campuswide email to inform staff and students of the situation. Despite not knowing where the gunman was heading, university communicators did not tell students to stay away from lectures and did not shut down the campus leading, perhaps, to students continuing to the classrooms where the second wave of attacks took place.

This demonstrates the need not only for quick communication methods, but also for the dissemination of “clear, unambiguous” (Roxan 2011) messages.

These priorities, however, should be balanced with the practicalities of an organisation. Would shutting down lectures and telling students to stay where they were have been feasible in such a large and spread-out institution? And would this response prevented Cho from killing others? The answer to both questions is probably “no” and thus demonstrates the challenges faced by large institutions in a crisis situation such as this.

So how can universities prepare for similar situations? Burton (2007) states that it is “prudent for university security directors, local school boards, parents and students to review or establish emergency plans” for such situations.

The investigation into the response at Virginia Tech concluded: “the campus emergency response plan, which was two years old, was deficient in not considering a shooting scenario and didn't put police high enough in the university's emergency decision-making hierarchy” (Facilities Net 2007).

When planning for a crisis, it is essential that an organisation’s audiences are considered and the best method for communicating with them decided upon. This includes, in the case of universities, internal audiences such as staff and students, as well as external audiences like the emergency services, local authorities, parents and partner institutions overseas.

At the time of the shooting, I was working in the press office at the University of Sheffield, UK. As the news reported on events taking place thousands of miles away, it became obvious that they were about to have an unforeseen impact on our institution – we had three students studying on exchange programmes at Virginia Tech at the time of the massacre.

Thanks to good, already-established relationships, the University of Sheffield’s student support teams were quick to inform the press office of the situation. But, it took a number of hours before the students could be reached (by mobile and email) and before it could be confirmed that they were safe and unhurt.

In the interim, concerned parents and friends had to be communicated with and reassured that the University was doing all it could to contact the students. Attempts by the press office to contact counterparts at Virginia Tech proved fruitless, as the story gathered world-wide attention and overwhelmed the small communications team in Virginia.

This anecdote demonstrates the need, when planning for a crisis, to carefully consider all possible audiences, including “secondary” audiences who may be “inactive but affected by an issue” (Roxan 2011).

When planning for a crisis, the significance of the media should of course not be overlooked and methods for dealing with a potential barrage of calls and emails from journalists should be established. As already stated, the intense interest the shootings generated overwhelmed the small communications team at Virgina Tech, meaning they were unable to effectively deal with both requests from the media, as well as tend to the needs of concerned parents and other publics.

Roxan (2011) states that during a crisis, the media should be used as an “ally” and provided with “timely, specific, factual information regularly updated”. This, of course, needs planning and managing and any crisis plan should consider this. In the case of Virginia Tech, the response to the media found to be lacking in some areas.

Despite calling a press conference in the early hours of the crisis, the university was criticised for relying so much on “a Q&A format where the chief’s facts were [so] few and guidance non-existent, [that] reporters and public had to cobble together the story” (Amme n.d). This resulted in the public “beginning to suspect an administration and crisis response that was out of control” (Ames 2010 p26).

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The Virgina Tech shootings: a critical evaluation of the communications response
Sheffield Hallam University
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Public relations, Communications, Reputation, Crisis management, Virginia Tech, Universities
Quote paper
Tessa Humphrys (Author), 2011, The Virgina Tech shootings: a critical evaluation of the communications response, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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