Volume XVI | Issue 1 | Spring 2016
Media satellite trucks line the road near Umpqua Community College on Oct. 2, 2015. Photo: Getty

Communications needs

Information flies fast: It’s a daunting task to keep it accurate, timely

Every group involved in the response to the UCC shooting had overwhelming communication needs. Plans were being made quickly — from evacuations of the campus to locations for counseling. 

“The information flew, and it was a daunting task to keep it accurate and timely,” said Nora Vitz Harrison, a communications consultant to The Ford Family Foundation who assisted in the UCC command center. “No one public information officer could have handled the load.”

Accept help

That was one of the lessons Harrison took away from the experience. An army of communication professionals from across the state and from various agencies cycled through the command center. They wrote press releases, drafted question-and-answer sheets, and prepared press-briefing notes for officials. Harrison offered other lessons: 

Build resilient and redundant websites

UCC’s website, the place where most people looked to get information, became overloaded and crashed as the incident became an international story. The problem was made worse as the passwords to access the site were kept in Synder Hall, the scene of the shooting. 

Beware the national media circus

The national media descended en masse, filling the hotels and clogging the roads around the college, the hospital and sites of the funerals. They were relentless in their pursuit of stories. A male reporter followed Vanessa Becker, chair of the UCC board of trustees, into a restroom trying to get an interview. Other reporters staked out the counseling centers hoping to talk with victims. A college administrator said she was asked questions clearly designed to make her cry on camera. 

A community member reported that her neighbors set up lawn chairs across both ends of the street on which a victim’s family lived. The family had no desire to talk to anyone. Neighbors took turns sitting in the chairs to create a human barricade and to protect the family from the onslaught of reporters. 

UCC has only one road in and out, which helped in controlling the media’s access to the campus. Law enforcement kept the road blocked until a plan was in place to re-open the college. The national media finally left after the last funeral.

Embrace the local media

Despite the free-for-all with the national media, the local media behaved, for the most part, responsibly. They helped disseminate critical information — where to find counseling, how to donate funds, and where to give blood. They, too, pursued the unfolding story, but they are part of the community and in for the long haul. 

Use all communication channels

Press briefings are just the start. Post to websites, Facebook, Twitter, and any other means of sharing information. And monitor social media. Facebook helped families and authorities alike account for possible victims.  

Know that some will try to politicize the event

While the overwhelming majority of the community focused on ways to help the victims, a few grabbed the spotlight to highlight their agendas. The media were quick to give them a microphone. Gun-rights protestors (for and against), many from out of town, used the moment to promote their views. Others led demonstrations against President Obama, who came to offer condolences to the victims’ families. The media did not differentiate between locals and outsiders, nor did they check credentials for people who held out their opinions as representative of elected officials. The result was a misrepresentation of the community, which was difficult to correct. 

Stay focused

Don’t worry about things over which you have no control. The work in the command center needs your full attention.  

Take care of your basic needs

Like food and sleep. Make sure someone is charged with keeping healthy food and drinks available at the command centers.

Cycle out

The atmosphere is intense and exhausting. Understand your limits and hand over to others when your effectiveness wanes. 

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