Virginia Tech turned to one of this country’s largest and most successful public relations firms, Bursen-Marsteller. On May 29, 2007, less than six weeks after the shootings, and one month after terminating Firestorm, Tech signed a contract with Burson-Marsteller to handle publicity about the shooting rampage.
Burson-Marsteller received $663,006.48 for developing a spin on the tragedy. That spin was, and still is, designed to minimize damage to the school and protect school officials from lawsuits. A comparison of the nearly $700,000.00 paid to a public relations firm with the $100,000 given to each of the dead victims’ families gives you an idea of the extent to which Virginia Tech was running scared and was willing to buy its way out of a serious dilemma. Keep in mind that Virginia Tech has a university public relations office staffed by highly competent officials—as well as courses in public relations taught by outstanding faculty members—yet the school paid a princely sum to a public relations firm to help ensure that the truth about the shooting would be obscured in a frenzy of emotionalism.
Buying Burson-Marsteller’s services only added insult to injury for the families. The math is lousy; the math says it all. The school’s judgment and priorities were badly misplaced. The nearly $700,000 would have been better spent had it been given to the grieving families to help in the recovery process. Or, that money could have been spent on school security as a tribute to the victims.
For those who believe the dead victims’ families $100,000 compensation was inappropriate, how much worse is it that Firestorm was paid $150,000 and Bursen-Marsteller received nearly $700,000 to do a job that could have been done internally if only the adminstration had been focused on an honest accounting of events rather than an elaborate spin-doctoring of the evidence.
Virginia Tech chose well. Burson-Marsteller came to prominence in the 1990s for organizing a campaign focused on smokers’ rights in support of Philip Morris and the tobacco industry. (A tie to some of the most powerful influence peddlers in Virginia may have helped the firm land the contract.) Later, Burson-Marsteller played spin-doctor for Dow-Corning’s campaign on behalf of silicone breast implants. Some silicone implants developed leaks once implanted in women’s bodies, causing serious health problems. Dow-Corning hired Bursen-Marsteller to help minimize the negative publicity. Can there be any other conclusion that Burson-Marsteller was engaged by Virginia Tech to continue working the magic of misdirection and cover-up?
The school also moved quickly to protect its president and police chief. Within three days of the shootings, Virginia Tech created a Web site (www.wesupportvt.com) in support of President Charles Steger and Chief Wendell Flinchum. It took Virginia Tech’s Office of Recovery and Support four months to get the Web site (www.recoveryvt.com) for the victims’ families up and running.
On March 18, 2009, an OpEd article I wrote appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The article called for Virginia Tech President Charles Steger to step down and for Governor Kaine to reopen the investigation into the Tech shootings. A few days later, I received a well-written, thoughtful response from a lawyer in New York. He wrote, “While there are many bright, highly competent and well-intentioned people working in higher education, there is also a high level of mediocrity, incompetence and self-interest. In my opinion the latter traits have been displayed in this situation at Virginia Tech. And, such traits have been excused and ratified by the Governor’s immediate political actions in this instance.”
The lawyer’s words strike at the heart of what appears to be under-the-table actions by a school administration whose main goal seems to have been to avoid making tough decisions regarding a deeply troubled student. Look at Penn State. There were no deaths at State College, but young boys’ lives have been scarred forever; they have been psychologically and physically damaged. And how did Penn State’s leadership respond? The school thought of the institution first and protecting itself. The following is a direct quote from the findings of the Louis Freeh report investigating Penn State sexual abuse scandal:
“Our most saddening and sobering finding is the total disregard for the safety and welfare of Sandusky's child victims by the most senior leaders at Penn State. The most powerful men at Penn State failed to take any steps for 14 years to protect the children who Sandusky victimized. Messrs. Spanier, Schultz, Paterno and Curley never demonstrated, through actions or words, any concern for the safety and well-being of Sandusky's victims until after Sandusky's arrest.”
It appears that Penn State responded with a wink and a nod, an incomprehensible willingness to turn a blind eye to child abuse. Both schools—Penn State and Virginia Tech—put the reputations of their respective institutions ahead of taking action. Neither school took the correct course of action when confronted with crimes—Virginia Tech at the double homicide in West Ambler Johnston Hall, and Penn State when confronted with eye-witness accounts of child abuse.
“Protect the school and its reputation” appears to have been the mantra of these administrations bent on shielding their actions from review and recriminations. Look at the Appalachian School of Law, Virginia Tech, and now Penn State. In all three cases, the inaction of school officials struck at the heart of common sense and human decency. In all three instances, at all three schools, the words “mediocre” and “incompetent” leadership describe the actions of the schools’ administrations.
My family is part of the Hokie Nation. A member of our family is a graduate of Virginia Tech. We are so proud of the outstanding education he received at Virginia Tech. However, that pride does not preclude the shame we feel over the school’s abysmal leadership—specifically, the school’s overriding intent to protect and enhance the Virginia Tech image at all costs, including at the expense of the shooting victims’ families. (To be continued)