A Textbook Case of Crisis Communications

A Deserted Wesleyan University Campus

By Eric Seidel, CEO
The Media Trainers®

Noon Wednesday, May 6th, was especially festive on the Wesleyan University campus. Another winter semester was ending and, even though finals would begin soon, it was time to party as the annual Spring Fling got started on the Middletown, CT, campus.

In less than two hours the fun and celebration were instantly transformed to shock and fear. Tensions would be high over the next two days as a student body of 2500 was sequestered in their living quarters.

An hour after Spring Fling began, a cold-blooded killer walked into a university bookstore and emptied his gun into a beautiful young coed working there. Within 40 minutes of that shooting, a mass email, a voicemail and text messages were broadcast to the entire Wesleyan family. It would be the first of at least 12 public updates from university president Michael Roth in the 47 hours between the murder and the arrest of the suspect. In that initial message, Roth said, “We advise students, faculty and staff to remain indoors until more information is available.”

The response by Roth and the city was swift and organized. In the early stages they had no idea what they were dealing with. Was this a crazed gunman, like the one who killed 32 people and himself during a campus rampage two years ago at Virginia Tech? Memories of Blacksburg, VA, still are vivid. That was a wake up call to colleges and universities nationwide to be prepared for the unexpected, to have a crisis plan.

Roth, the police chief and the mayor obviously were in constant touch with each other. Their actions were coordinated and reassuring. On the morning of day two, less than 24 hours after the shooting, all three held a joint news briefing to update the community. (Click on video below.)

Meals were delivered to dorms and homes where students lived so that they would remain indoors. University president Roth took his family to have dinner with students at the one open dining facility the evening of day two. In addition to his other updates, the university president also kept his own blog updated.

Roth extended dates for exams, even into the summer, in order to meet the needs of students who had made unalterable travel plans, or were just too shaken. He asked professors to be flexible in light of the tragedy.

He has made sure in his online messaging that students are aware of support systems available to them as well as plans for memorials in honor of Johanna Justin-Jinich.

Using all the available avenues of communication, Michael Roth and city officials prevented panic and made sure the entire community was connected to events as they evolved. Once it was clear that there was a specific suspect and that he did not pose an immediate danger to the student population, Roth began reopening the campus.

Obviously, the university and city had to react to events as they understood them at any given time. Some things you just cannot anticipate. But having a basic plan gave them the flexibility to improvise as necessary. No doubt others will study and learn from Wesleyan University’s crisis response.

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