Full Court Press: Parking Lessons
From the Media Onslaught at Virginia Tech
The tragic shootings at Virginia Tech on April 16 were over by midday; for Tech’s Office of Transportation and its subsidiary Parking Services group, the challenges were just beginning.
Even as the department reeled from the loss of one of its own, Tech senior Jarrett Lane, mourning took a back seat to dealing with an onrushing media horde. “One of the media folks told us that, at the peak, this was bigger than Columbine, bigger than OJ, bigger than anything else from the media’s perspective that had ever happened in America,” said Steve Mouras, director of Tech’s Office of Transportation & Records Management. “This was the largest media event of all time, they said.”
Mouras was in a Philadelphia hotel room on that Monday morning, preparing to attend a conference. His wife, who had joined him on the trip, summoned him to the television where they watched in horror as CNN reported the deaths. After conferring by phone with Tech’s Manager of Parking Services, Richard McCoy, Mouras decided to return immediately to Blacksburg, catching the first flight available.
On landing at the Roanoke Valley Airport later that afternoon, Mouras was shocked to see the normally placid facility bustling, noting that “three-fourths of the people in the airport were media. At the rental car counter, there was a line of 30 people.” It should have been a tip-off to what was coming.
Most emergency plans anticipate the exodus of people from a calamity; few anticipate a flood into its epicenter. Yet this would be exactly the challenge the parking and transportation professionals at Tech would face for the next two weeks.
Until Day 3, no clear, centralized media gathering point was being communicated with one voice by all university departments. As a result, dozens of satellite trucks and news vehicles dispersed throughout campus, clogging the roads in search of a story angle. Due to their antenna arrays and stabilizer arms, satellite trucks can easily occupy the same space as a large RV. Many simply stopped in the roadways and set up shop. At the peak of the event, there were approximately 350 news outlets and 100 such satellite trucks.
“We needed to have told the media from Day One, Hour One, these are the ground rules,” Mouras says. “Satellite trucks go to this location, when it fills up they go to that location, period. No discussion. When media trucks are on campus, they are allowed to do this, not that. I talked to a great guy from CBS who told us that in other things they cover, the media are put in a compound where they are told to be and that’s where they’re at.”
McCoy advises other P&T professionals to consider staffing media-driven events to protect critical areas from encroachment and to keep traffic moving. Even after areas were designated for satellite trucks, “we posted a guard 24/7 on them to make sure they stayed where we wanted them,” he said. Not everyone plays by the rules, Tech discovered.
There’s a fine line between winning the battle to manage the logistics of the media’s coverage and losing the larger war to facilitate a favorable message. “Early on, a group of them [the media] had their knives sharpened,” Mouras says. They were looking for someone to blame. We had all the big names and all the big egos, too.”
The challenge was to balance the media’s desire to cover the story with legitimate public safety and traffic concerns. A draconian crackdown would likely create a negative image for Tech, yet there was no guarantee that allowing the media free range on campus would produce a positive one, either.
The first key to regaining control over the media mob was feeding them what they came for: news. If University Relations (UR) didn’t give them what they needed at the joint information center, they would go out and hunt for it. Fortunately, with a staff beefed up by volunteers from other departments, including one from the Office of Transportation, UR began doling out a steady stream of quality information.
A second key was letting the media do their jobs, enforcing the rules but retaining some flexibility. An example provided by Mouras and McCoy was when a satellite truck was asked to vacate an area, they might allow them a little extra time to file the story they had just set up for. While some members of the media have a well-deserved, unsavory reputation, the Tech staff observed that most were just trying to do their jobs and do them well.
With the joint information center up and running and a location for satellite trucks identified, the Tech Transportation staff began calling on the scattered media units on Monday evening. The message: please relocate to the designated areas.
In most cases. the media cooperated, perceiving they were being treated equally with other outlets. In some cases, it was necessary to call on law enforcement to provide some additional persuasion for those who believed they were an exception to the new rules.
“Wednesday, we made the rules,” Mouras said. “Thursday, we began to enforce them. By Friday, we had the press totally under control.”
Knowing that such an event could happen can inform future emergency planning, Tech believes. It will take months, perhaps even years, for all the lessons learned to be placed in the context of an improved action plan.
Charles R. “Charlie” Munn III, CAPP, CPFM, is a graduate of Virginia Tech. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org. He is donating his fee for this article to the memorial fund for the victims at VA Tech.
Lessons from Virginia Tech on Handling the Media Crush
• Choose a Location – By choosing a suitably large location in advance, you can centralize media services and support.
• Watch the Satellite Trucks - Don’t allow these behemoths on campus or designate small areas and rotate the trucks in and out. Use 24/7 guards to keep them in, and out of, designated areas.
• Communicate Internally – Make sure your public relations people know who you are and what you do, so they don’t make impossible demands or questionable concessions.
• Feed the Media – Centralize news distribution. Remember, if the media are not easily and quickly provided what they came for, they will go looking for it where you don’t want them.
• Be Consistent – Media are extremely competitive; if you make an exception for one, make it for all. Try to make sure all permissions for access, credentials, etc. are centralized.
• Be Flexible – Be reasonable and sensitive to media deadlines.
• Be Firm – Be courteous, but politely insist they obey reasonable procedures on obstructing traffic, trespassing or creating a hazard.
• Win Confrontations – Media types can be aggressive; have Public Safety/Police backup in case conflicts escalate. Sometimes, only the threat of arrest can deter them from their story.