Initially, the school turned to the crisis management company, Firestorm Solutions, LLC. According to school records, Firestorm helped monitor and answer press questions, as well as monitor the call center. But Firestorm’s activities were much more extensive. School records show that Firestorm “assisted with communication messaging strategy and media relations, (as well as) ongoing strategy development and implementation.” Firestorm did such things as monitor the media “for pertinent information regarding prime issues at hand.” The company helped prepare school personnel for news conferences and to develop a crisis management strategy.
Firestorm also drafted a document called “Forward to the Future,” which might have been the catalyst for the University’s slogan “Invent the Future.” In other words, Firestorm was central to the initial stages of building a strategy to deal with the crisis.
In an August 16, 2007 memorandum from Kay Heidbreder, the university counsel, to James Dunlap, the university’s associate director of purchasing, Heidreder requested that the university pay Firestorm $150,000 for ten days of work. The school employed Firestorm April 19-29, 2007, because “Virginia Tech was inundated with press requests immediately following the events [the April 16 shootings]. Virginia Tech did not have the resources to meet information needs.” Heidbreder also asserted that “because of the emergent circumstances, there was no time to bid for necessary assistance nor was any other competitive method practicable. Once the media crisis abated, University Relations terminated its relationship with Firestorm.”
Three days earlier, on August 13, 2007, Larry Hincker (Associate Vice President, University Relations) sent a memo to Ellen Douglas, the university’s Assistant Director Risk Management, explaining the bill. According to Hincker, “It was our understanding that this would be a combination pro-bono and for-pay services. The pace of the recovery and response was incredibly hectic and while the university legal counsel attempted to negotiate a contract, it was never signed by the time we dismissed the firm on April 29.”
Hincker then wrote, “As you can see from the email note from Kim O’Rouke to Larry Hincker and Kay Heidbreder of Tuesday, August 7, President Steger has approved to pay this bill from state funds.”
Issuing a no-bid contract in the wake of Cho’s rampage is understandable; not having the contract signed is indefensible. For the university’s counsel and legal staff to take the word of a board member that Firestorm’s service would in part be pro bono, goes beyond naïve. Nothing is legally binding unless it is in a signed contract. The university’s willingness to accept the word of a board member borders on incompetence, particularly when you consider that such a legal agreement would have been pretty much a boiler plate contract that the university or Firestorm should have had on hand. The university was initially hit with a bill for nearly $193,000. The bill ended up being negotiated down to $150,000 and, as noted above, President Steger personally authorized its payment out of state funds.
Let’s take a look at how this money was spent. An itemized expense account for Firestorm amounting to $10,649.41 includes $438.80 for a cancelled air ticket, another $125.55 for a cancelled hotel reservation, and $374.80 for yet another cancelled air ticket. Now, let’s look at the hourly rates paid to Firestorm team members. The “principal” team member worked 115 hours at $450 an hour for a total of $51,750. The “preaction architect” (whatever that is), worked 107.5 hours at $150 an hour for a total of $16,125. A “research assistant” worked 7.5 hours at $100 an hour for $750, and finally, an “executive assistant” worked 6 hours at $75 an hour for a total of $300. The grand total was $68,925, discounted by 20 percent for a final bill of $55,140.
Firestorm employed the law firm of Blank Rome, LLP for not only advice on legal matters such as sovereign immunity, but to draft and help coordinate media strategy, as well as give advice on a potential press Web site. Part of Firestorm’s fee went to pay the law firm $36,874.50. Blank Rome worked five days, from April 23 to 28.
Firestorm also brought in Dr. Ralph Diner, a psychologist with a background in Behavioral Medicine, including treatment of grief and trauma. He was employed from April 26 to May 7. His last four days were done free of charge. For six days of work, however, he was paid $12,000. Diner’s invoice is in many respects the worst indictment of the school’s poor treatment of the families. Diner is a nationally recognize grief counselor, yet his invoice indicates he met with only two mothers of the victims.
His invoice lists counseling several staff members, meetings with department heads, a tour of the campus, “discussed stress and press with the police and security,” and went to the bookstore where he counseled with staff regarding their families’ reactions to the events. His invoice contains a cryptic entry stating that he “met with Larry (Hincker) and was informed about the HR results and agreed to discontinue my involvement.”
The documents detailing Diner’s responsibilities at Virginia Tech show that his expertise was not used to counsel victims or their families, except in two cases. The official documents clearly demonstrate Diner’s expertise was used for the benefit of the school, its staff, and its faculty.
Dr. Diner declined to be interviewed when I wrote my book on the Virginia Tech massacre, and Firestorm never responded to a certified letter I sent requesting an interview.
If you remember, Heidbreder wrote, “Once the media crisis abated, University Relations terminated its relationship with Firestorm.” In fact, the media crisis was not over by April 29, 2007 when Firestorm was let go. Cho’s rampage was still a major story and the media was still asking pointed questions about Virginia Tech’s actions before, during, and after April 16th. The crisis was becoming more serious because of the nature of the questions being asked about Tech’s actions. In that sense the crisis was growing—not abating.
Firestorm’s ties to Virginia Tech, then, lasted a scant 10 days. The shootings had struck a deep and responsive chord everywhere in the United States—and abroad. People wanted answers and explanations. The school was under a microscope and something needed to be done to explain Tech’s embarrassing actions and inactions. Apparently Firestorm was not big enough to handle the enormity of negative publicity.
Virginia Tech needed a company with a history of handling, managing, and manipulating evidence; a firm that could twist the crisis to Virginia Tech’s benefit or at least minimize the widespread and growing criticism of the Steger administration.
The trick would be to come up with a public line that would make the school’s administration a victim, a line that was plausible and played to the emotions of the school’s alumni and financial contributors. For that, Tech would need experts to help metastasize the deceit—Bursen-Marsteller. (To be continued)