Lessons from a campus shooting

The chief communicator at Northern Illinois University explains how her staff handled the Feb. 14 shooting that killed five students and wounded 18. Video

The chief communicator at Northern Illinois University explains how her staff handled the Feb. 14 shooting that killed five students and wounded 18

Melanie Magara is still exhausted.

Four months have past since the deadly shooting at Northern Illinois University and Magara, the chief communicator at the university, is more tired than ever.

The tragedy occurred Feb. 14, when a gunman walked into an NIU lecture hall, shot and killed five students, wounded 18 and then killed himself. The gruesome incident lasted minutes, while the crisis communications continued relentlessly for weeks after the event.

“The interest in this story and the aftermath really went on much longer than any of us anticipated,” Magara said. “My staff and I worked 19 straight days, about 16 hours a day, until we could get past the really first [wave] of media interest.”

The university’s time-tested crisis communications plan, developed shortly after 9/11, guided Magara and her staff through those rough weeks. Months later, she can share the communication lessons of the incident, including what they learned in the moments and hours following the tragedy.

The first calls

Hear Magara recount the hours and days immediately after the shooting.

It had been a quiet day at the NIU public affairs office until the shooting occurred shortly after 3 p.m. It was also an unusual day in the office, because every one of her eight-person staff was physically in the office.

Eight minutes after the shooting, the phones started ringing—and the nonstop calls didn’t end for weeks.

A colleague called the office first to report bleeding students fleeing Cole Hall. Minutes later a local DeKalb Chronicle reporter phoned after hearing of the shooting on the newsroom’s police scanner.

Magara quickly phoned local police at 3:11 p.m. to confirm the shooting and learned that police were on the scene. She then called NIU president John G. Peters who also confirmed the shooting and gave her the OK to launch into crisis communication mode.

Less than 10 minutes after confirming the shooting, Magara’s staff turned to its crisis communications plan and started sending emergency alerts.

At 3:20 p.m. e-mails and phone calls were broadcast to students and staff on campus with this message: “There was a report of a possible gunman on campus. Get to a safe area and take precautions until given the all clear. Avoid the King Commons and all buildings in that vicinity.”

The shooting was as brief as it was tragic.

“It didn’t take long for our police to determine that it was a single gunman and that he had ended his life and that there were no other dangers immediately on campus,” she said. “So getting beyond that first emergency alert there was then an enormous need for information.”

In the first 24 hours after the shooting, her office logged 1,300 media calls and countless more went to voicemail or were missed.

To handle this overload, Magara divvied up the task. Three writers gathered facts, wrote updates and handled calls with the help of a secretary; two people updated the Web site; one designer created artwork and monitored social media sites like Facebook for information.

Someone also had to handle the thousands of calls from terrified parents, a Herculean task taken on by the school’s student affairs department. The department established a hotline for parents that registered 10,000 calls in the first two days of the tragedy.

The media deluge

As the calls poured in, NIU had to prepare for the media deluge about to swamp a campus unaccustomed to such heavy media attention. Just hours after the shooting news outlets serving markets around the world arrived on campus.

The effect of Virginia Tech

Months after the deadly shooting at Virginia Tech in April 2007, a detailed report about the school’s crisis response was released. Officials at Northern Illinois University examined that report to improve its own crisis communication plan.

“We went through that report line by line at the president’s request—line by line—[asking] can we do this, should we do this … and that very much informed our crisis communications plan,” Magara said. Two tips (of many) they pulled from the report: Don’t house victims’ families near the media center and use strike-through mode with every new Web posting.

In addition, NIU officials held a two-hour conference call with their peers at Virginia Tech the morning after the Feb. 14 shooting that turned into an almost daily conversation between Magara and her counterpart there.

“There is a set of skills and experience that you only gain by going through this and sometimes it was helpful just to talk to someone who’d been through and understood the overwhelming crush of attention and overwhelming need for communication, especially in the first week or two,” she said.

By all accounts, Magara and her staff earned top marks for their media relations.

They paid close attention to reporters. They gave them a large ballroom from which to work, sent them food and ensured their illegally parked vans weren’t ticketed by campus security.

That ballroom, located across from the building that houses public affairs, was also the site of NIU’s news conferences.

The first news conference took place at 5:30 p.m. the day of the shooting and Magara said more than 120 news outlets attended. At 7:30 p.m. the second and final news conference of the day occurred. (Video Read more details about the press conferences.)

Between these briefings, Magara urged press to check the NIU Web site for updates.

Within an hour after the shooting, Magara’s team replaced its Web site with a dark site they’d had at the ready—a key component of any crisis communications plan. Magara said the prepared templates for the Web, e-mail and phone messages had been created to be generic enough for use in any form of crisis.

The crisis-only Web page had the latest information about the shooting for media, students and parents. Magara’s staff posted 24 Web updates in 24 hours. Much of the material for those updates—class cancellations, memorials—came from the student affairs office, Magara said.

“Above and beyond any other communications vehicle, the one that proved to be most valuable for all audiences was the Web,” Magara said. “For about the three hours after the shooting no one could get a [cell] call out” so the university posted reminders on the site for students to use the landline in their rooms to call their parents.

The dark site registered four million hits in the 48 hours following the incident. The server never crashed thanks to hindsight and a stroke of luck, Magara recounted. The university’s IT chief had only months earlier purchased additional server space just in case an emergency struck the campus.

The enormity of the situation

Looking back, Magara attributes her staff’s relentless energy to adrenaline. “There’s nothing like that horrific of an event and that much attention from the world to get your adrenaline going.” Magara said. “We were literally working until one, two in the morning. [We’d] drive straight home, sleep a couple hours and come back.”

As many on the campus took time to grieve, Magara and her staff had to keep pushing through. About three weeks after the incident, the communicators began taking time off in shifts, a week here, a few days there. Magara took time off about six weeks after the event.

Months later, with the adrenaline long sapped and the media attention nearly gone, communicators at NIU have begun feeling the enormity of the situation—and they’re exhausted.

“I think all of us feel something settling in, you know? Even though it was a horrific thing we were dealing with, it was incredibly energizing because there was so much that needed to be done,” she said. “Many of us three, four months since the event, only now find ourselves thinking about it and allowing ourselves to grieve.”

“And as good a job as I think we did, it doesn’t change what has happened.”

Melanie Magara’s four lessons for crisis communications

1. Have a plan—and have backups. If your organization lacks a crisis communications plan, then Magara suggests you get the ball rolling by walking into a meeting and saying, “OK, here’s the crisis, what are we going to do?” Remember, a crisis can be anything from weather to arrests at your office.

2. Practice the plan. Have drills and be ready to go. “You’d better have the knowledge and authority to get it done quickly, particularly in those first hours when people need basic emergency instruction for what to do,” Magara explained. “When a crisis happens there’s no time to have a meeting, and there’s certainly no time to go delve through a document.”

3. Continually revise the plan. Think your plan is OK? That might not be good enough. “God willing you will never have to experience anything like this,” Margara said. “But that’s what we thought at NIU.” NIU revised its plan following the Virginia Tech tragedy.

4. Treat the news media as a partner. NIU communicators followed this one from the start. When Magara noticed all the media vans parked illegally she made sure to call campus security and inform them not to issue tickets. She also sent them food and continually asked how they were doing. For the most part, Magara added, take care of your regional media first. The local paper is in the story for the long haul; producers from Fox News Channel probably won’t stick around long.

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