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The Web and Crisis Communications


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Title: The Web and Crisis Communications

The Web and Crisis Communications
  • Michael Dame
  • Director of Web Communications
  • Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State

About myself
  • At Virginia Tech since November 2005
  • Previously served in myriad roles developing and
    managing Tribune Co. websites for 8 years
  • Crises during my tenure managing
  • 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
  • 10 years experience as a newspaper reporter
  • Contributed to coverage of 1990 Gainesville/UF
  • Primary reporter of NCAA investigation of UF in

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
  • 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 thats OK!)

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
  • 958 a.m.Alert posted to home page.Th
    e alert reads Emergency. Gunman on Campus, Stay
    Indoors and Away from Windows. See details.
  • 926 a.m.Blast e-mail with subject Shooting on
    campus sent, informing campus community of the
    shooting incident at West Ambler Johnston Hall
  • 931 a.m.Alert posted to home page regarding the
    AJ shooting incident.
  • 944 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
  • 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
  • Establish communication workflows with Joint
    Information Center (JIC)

How it continued on 4/16
  • 1240 p.m.Right after our first news conference,
    a podcast of Dr. Stegers statement is posted,
    along with notice of cancellation of all events.
    Note our lite home page layout.
  • 233 p.m.IT Webhosting brings third server
    online to support
  • 959 a.m.Began preparing our lite home page to
    move to production.
  • 1003 a.m.Began pulling Flash elements and
    graphics from home page.
  • 1017 a.m.Lite home page launched with new
    alert All Classes Cancelled Stay where you
  • 1033 a.m.Shut down VT News database to reduce
    load alert details page moved to
  • 1044 a.m.IT Webhosting brings second server
    online to support

Normal home page before 4/16
Lite home page on 4/16
Where we were
Norris Hall
Media Bldg
approximately 1.5 miles
West AJ
Joint Information Center
WebComm Central (a.k.a. my office)
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
  • Statements by university and law enforcement
  • 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
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 and opinions
  • 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
  • Connected with Larry Hincker regarding design and
    content ideas for
  • 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
  • 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
v1.0 of In Memoriam design
Virtual participation in our grieving
35,000 entries in 72 hours
v2.0 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

v3.0 of In Memoriam
  • The university began releasing names on 4/19,
    which we had to display prominently on the home
  • Very moving and poignant photos were coming in
    from our photo team

Photo galleries quickly assembled
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A humongous traffic spike
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
Trend over time March-May 2007
Is your IT infrastructure prepared for a spike
like this?
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
  • 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
  • What will the victims families think?
  • How should we present normal content?

Our decision
  • Use the 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

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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
  • 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

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.

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 Dont overdo it Let the facts
    and your audience tell the story
  • If resources allow, place someone at your JIC

How to get started
  • If you arent 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 behind during
  • Plan for family matters kids, pets, etc.
  • Surround yourself with cool, calm, collected
  • Expect to get very little sleep.
  • Dont forget about you.

New service VT Alerts
  • Launched July 1 in development since August 2006
  • More than 18,300 subscribers to date
  • Offers several new communication vehicles
  • Text messaging (SMS)
  • Phone calls (mobile, residence, office, other)
  • Instant messaging (AOL, MSN, Yahoo)
  • E-mail to non-VT addresses
  • Supplements established communication methods
  • Broadcast e-mail to all students, faculty, and
  • Virginia Tech homepage (
  • Weather/emergency hotline (540/231-6668)
  • Campus sirens and loudspeakers
  • University switchboard
  • Coordinated use of public media outlets

VT Alerts interface
Home page alert - sample
Our revamped lite home page
Thank You!
Id be happy to take your questions
  • Mike Dame
  • Director of Web Communications
  • Virginia Tech
  • (540) 231-8508