Crisis Communication Evaluation of 2007 Virginia Tech Mass Shooting
by Morgan Keene
PUR 4400: Crisis Communications Professor Bobbi Doggett
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, originally known as Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College, opened on October 1 of 1872 in Blacksburg, Virginia. Originally, Virginia Polytechnic Institute (known more famously as Virginia Tech) was known strictly for its agricultural studies and role as a land-grant institute. Over the years, it grew to be known for its outstanding research program and athletic program. On April 16, 2007, 23-year-old senior Seung-Hui Cho arrived at campus armed with a pistol and opened fire. Cho killed 33 students and faculty member, including himself.
Seung-Hui Cho was born January 18, 1984 in South Korea. In September of 1992, when Cho was 8-years-old, his family immigrated to Virginia where they opened a dry-cleaning business. Throughout his youth, Cho was bullied and was considered a loner throughout his high school years. In 2005, Cho was accused of stalking female students and was later ordered to attend outpatient therapy after making suicidal statements that led to a hospitalization (“Seung-Hui Cho Biography,” www.biography.com). On April 16, 2007, after months of planning and purchasing firearms and ammunition, Cho opened fire on the Virginia Tech campus and dormitories. He killed 32 people before turning the gun on himself.
In the 11-years since the shooting, Virginia Tech has continued to grow. It was ranked #74 in the 2020 Best Colleges in National Universities’ and has a largely successful engineering and athletics program (“Virginia Tech,” www.usnews.com). In memory of the 32 lives lost in 2007, Virginia Tech has created a website dedicated to the victims and have annual memorial events (“We Remember,” www.weremember.vt.edu). The university continues to grow in popularity in both academics and athletics, but they still take the time to remember the 32 lives lost on their campus just over a decade ago.
At the time of the Virginia Tech shooting, there had been only 10 major mass shootings in the U.S. By 2007, the only three mass shootings at schools were at Columbine High School, Red Lake Senior High School, and an Amish Schoolhouse (“A Timeline of Mass Shootings,” www.thinkprogress.com). The massacre of 13 people at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado had occurred only nine years. After Columbine, many grade schools had begun creating crisis plans and putting safety motions into place. At the time, mass shootings were not on the radar as much as they are in 2019. This led to many schools and universities not having crisis plans in place for these types of situation. As mass shootings were on the rise, Virginia Tech (and colleges around the U.S. in general) should have begun preparing for the possibility of mass shootings after Columbine.
Cho’s multiple mental-health crises were brought to the attention to Virginia Tech professors and staff multiple times during his time at the University. Cho exhibited odd behavior, wrote concerning stories, stalked two female students, and was eventually admitted into a psychiatric hospital for making suicidal statements (“Seung-Hui Cho Biography,” www.biography.com). Despite all of these warning signs, he was only ever ordered to receive outpatient therapy and attended it once. He was never charged or investigated for any of the accusations made against him nor was he removed from the school or dorms by higher ups, despite him being removed by individual professors. Cho’s mental health crises and dangerous behavior was continuously overlooked by higher ups and was not made to go through with his court-ordered therapy.
After the Columbine High School attacks, all schools should have put a plan in place that would “enhance the university’s ability to respond quickly and effectively in situations where the safety of the campus community is jeopardized” (“Overview of the findings…,” www.vtnews.vt.edu). However, they had not prepared for the possibility of a mass shooting despite the rise in them through the years and ignored the prodromes exhibited by Cho.
Virginia Tech Police Department and Blacksburg, Virginia Police Department: The campus police should have been the first people aware of the situation and on the scene. As the campus police department, they would already be on the campus and could therefore reach the assailant and victims first. The Blacksburg, Virginia Police Department should also have been made aware of the situation right away. While Virginia Tech had their own campus police, they would need more security and assistance to keep the situation from escalating. Blacksburg police need to help apprehend the assailant, protect victims, and deescalate the scene. They also need to be on hand to help the rush of parents, media, and onlookers who will flood the campus for answers.
Virginia Tech President Charles Steger: President of Virginia Tech in 2007, Charles Steger needed to be alerted as soon as the Virginia Tech and Blacksburg police. As president, he is the face of the school and needed to begin addressing the situation with families, students, and the press. Steger is going to be the one people look to for answers, so it’s crucial he is up to date on every piece of information that comes in in order to keep the public informed.
Ron Rordam, Mayor of Blacksburg, Virginia: As the face and the political head of Blacksburg, Ron Rordam needed to be informed so that he could inform the rest of the state what was happening. He was the head of Blacksburg, the face of the city and the voice of the people. In order to keep everyone calm, to keep rumors and speculation from being spread, and avoid an outbreak of panic he needed to be able to tell people the most accurate, up to date information and could only do that if he was kept informed by those who were working directly with the situation—such as the police departments and Charles Steger.
Tim Kaine, Governor of Virginia: As the face of the state of Virginia, Tim Kaine was the person that the national and international media would turn to for information. Kaine would be the one to speak with the higher ups in the White House, the FBI, and all national or international spokespeople who needed information. Kaine is the person who is going to share the information with the entire nation, the one people will see on their tv’s addressing the issue. He is the person the entire nation expects to hear the information from, where Rordam is the person the people of Blacksburg expect to hear from.
Virginia Tech Board Members: As those directly invested in the reputation and progress of the school, the board members needed to know. It is often the board members who pay for the school or decide which rules, protection, or bills are put in place to help protect students and grow the school. They need to know what happened right away so that they understand in detail what happened from the school directly and not from the media or rumors. This way they are involved with the crisis and can help move the school forward.
Parents, Community members, and Blacksburg residents: Like any town with a large college in it, Blacksburg residents most likely all have some ties to the university. Whether it’s a loved one, their job, they’re an alumnus, or they’re just a fan of the football team, everyone in Blacksburg will be affected by the shooting. They want to know what is happening because it is directly affecting them in some way, whether directly or indirectly. Though it was an attack on a college campus, it was also an attack on their home. Like the members of Virginia Tech, they just want to know what happened, why it happened, and how many people were injured. They also want to know how to move forward after such a devastating event.
Local Media: The local media are the first diffused public who need to know about the situation. The people of Blacksburg and the rest of Virginia will turn to their local media to hear from Virginia Tech officials, Virginia politicians, and the police.
National and International Media: Those outside of Virginia who hear about the shooting and want to know more will turn to the national media. Places like CNN, Fox, and HLN are some of the national media people will turn on to hear from Virginia Tech officials, politicians, and police, but also experts on mass shootings, mental health, and gun regulations who can help them make sense of what happened. Those outside of the United States who hear about the shooting and want to know more will turn to the national media. In 2007, social media wasn’t around. Facebook wouldn’t become public until 2012 and Twitter had only been around for a year. So, those internationally who wanted to learn more from Virginia Tech officials, Virginia politicians, and the Virginia police through international news outlet.
Virginia Tech Students, staff, and faculty: Those who live and work at Virginia Tech are the ones who need to know immediately about the situation. Their lives are the ones at risk with being on campus or in the dorms. They must to be aware of the situation and told of the safest way to escape, whether it was from their classroom, office, building or their dorm. They also needed to be informed right away of the situation so that they know what to tell their parents or peers who are trying to reach them. They also must know as they could have been a potential peer of the shooter and could potentially get needed information to the police right away.
CRISIS COMMUNICATION THEORY
Attribution Theory by Weiner (1985-2006)
In the aftermath of the April 16 shooting at Virginia Tech, people wanted answers on what led Seung-Hui Cho to kill 32-people before turning the gun on himself. People were grieving the lives of those lost in the shooting and wanted answers, but not necessarily from Virginia Tech. People were angry that Cho had taken so many lives and then took his own before justice could be served. They were sympathetic towards the students, their families, and staff of Virginia Tech after having their lives disrupted by terrible, unnecessary violence. The public wanted answers for why the shooting happened and what made Cho do what he did, but not what Virginia Tech did to cause it.
Image Restoration Theory by Benoit (2004)
After the April 16 shooting, Virginia Tech had to recover their image. They had to remove themselves from just being known for the shooting. To restore their image, they focused on corrective action by reviewing the shooting through the lens of the Security Infrastructure Group, Information and Communications Infrastructure Group, and Interface Group. Through these reviews, they learned new tactics and safety-measures to put in place in order to protect students and staff if it was to ever happen again. They also worked on repairing the emotional and reputational damage done to the school by the shooting, choosing to build a memorial to always remember the victims but focusing on continuing to grow the academics and athletics of the school for future generations.
During the crisis at Virginia Tech, stayed in constant communication with students. They sent out constant emails on April 16, 2007 starting 9:26 a.m. until 12:42 p.m. They gave the students up-to-date information as it happened so that they were informed of everything happening. In the days after the shooting, the police and school officials continued communicating with the public as the investigation took place. In the aftermath of the shootings, the investigations put on by the Security Infrastructure Group, Information and Communications Infrastructure Group, and the Interface Group were shared with the public directly on Virginia Tech’s website. The messages that Virginia Tech spread to their audiences during the crisis and in the aftermath was that they were going to be upfront and honest with them, keep them involved and informed on the investigation, and how they were making sure a scenario like this never happened again.
In May of 2007, Virginia Tech’s then-President Charles Steger directed three internal reviews of the Security Infrastructure Group, Information and Communications Infrastructure Group, and the Interface Group. Steger directed the chairs of each group to "to look at strengths and weaknesses of our existing systems/infrastructure and how they may be improved or augmented to address emergency situations that might arise in the future” (“Overview of the findings…,” www.vtnews.vt.edu). In these reviews, the school was able to find where improvements were needed to avoid another mass shooting from successfully happening ever again. In their investigation, they found that the university needed to enhance the response time of its campus officers and outreach to outside officers. They also found that they needed to improve their information systems response time during a crisis and stressed the importance of creating a stronger student counseling system and campus legal system (“Overview of the findings…,” www.vtnews.vt.edu). Had their counseling and legal system been stronger, it might have prevented Cho’s outburst or allowed him to be caught in the planning period. In the years since the shooting, Virginia Tech has created a threat assessment team to track distressed students, trained administration and faculty to identify warning signs, and promote mental health awareness on campus (“Overview of the findings…,” www.vtnews.vt.edu).
In the evaluation of Virginia Tech’s handling of the April 16 shooting was overall successful considering it was the first mass shooting at a college campus in the U.S. Like the administration of Columbine, the Virginia Tech administration stayed in contact with the public during the situation and kept them updated on the investigation in the aftermath. They were successful in dealing with the aftermath of the situation. However, there were prodromes that Cho was mentally unstable and dangerous. Virginia Tech did not have strong enough mental health training for their administration or resources available to students struggling with mental health crises. With the rise of mass shootings and the prodromes of students like Cho who were not receiving accurate mental health assistance, Virginia Tech was not prepared to prevent the shooting. In order to have a successful crisis plan in place for another shooting, Virginia Tech need to have a strong threat assessment team, protective measures for classrooms and buildings, and a strong communication plan so that they can keep students and staff updated in the event.
Facts About Virginia Tech. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://vt.edu/about/facts-about-virginia-tech.html.
Fearn-Banks, K. (n.d.). Crisis Communication: A Casebook Approach (5th ed.).
How Does Virginia Tech Rank Among America's Best Colleges? (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.usnews.com/best-colleges/virginia-tech-3754.
Overview of the findings and recommendations of the April 16 tragedy internal review committees. (2007). Retrieved from https://vtnews.vt.edu/articles/2007/08/2007-459.html.
Seung-Hui Cho. (2019, June 18). Retrieved from https://www.biography.com/crime-figure/seung-hui-cho.
Shen, A. (2012, December 14). A Timeline Of Mass Shootings In The US Since Columbine. Retrieved from https://thinkprogress.org/a-timeline-of-mass-shootings-in-the-us-since-columbine-f33162dd2ea7/.
Virginia Tech Shootings Fast Facts. (2019, April 8). Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2013/10/31/us/virginia-tech-shootings-fast-facts/index.html.
We Remember. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.weremember.vt.edu/.