Silver Anvil 2014 Highlight: Mass Killing Averted: Communicating a Campus Crisis


“My roommate just pulled the fire alarm and he’s got a gun.” 

That harrowing 911 call from an on-campus resident at the University of Central Florida was received by UCF Police shortly after midnight. When police arrived, they rescued the caller and found the roommate dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Investigators soon found a handgun, an assault weapon, improvised explosive devices and a “to do” list in the subject’s room suggesting plans for a mass shooting. The quick-thinking roommate’s 911 call and the rapid police response helped to prevent a tragedy. 

UNIVERSITYOFCENTRALFLORIDAGiven the recent history of mass shootings; the discovery of the “to do list” and the fact that the suspect was living on-campus though not enrolled in classes and failing to pay rent; and UCF’s status as a public university in a state with the nation’s broadest public record disclosure laws, the university’s media relations office, UCF News & Information, knew that it faced a major crisis communications challenge. 

They were ready because UCF’s institution-wide crisis-management team and their issues forecasting team both meet regularly to identify potential risks, review and update crisis response protocols and develop messaging and strategies for response. UCF leaders also regularly meet with peers at other agencies and institutions to share best practices. 

When this crisis hit, the university committed to be transparent and quickly release information as it was confirmed. Goals for the crisis communication included:

1.   Maintain timely and transparent communication with target audiences – the campus community, parents, the public and media.

2.   Shape news coverage to highlight UCF’s quick police response and high-quality counseling services.

3.   Limit media coverage to one week in an effort to resume normal campus life.

Updates across multiple platforms began at 2:09 a.m. Crisis plans were activated, including the emergency website and the UCF Alert system, which sends text and emails to more than 70,000 registered UCF students and employees. The News & Information Office also worked hand-in-hand with UCF Police, the FBI and other agencies to ensure accurate, consistent communication. As nearly 100 local, state and national reports descended on the campus, the office had to communicate the frightening details in a way that upheld UCF’s reputation as a safe place for students to live and learn. 

To conveniently provide video, audio, images and records to media, an online Dropbox account was created and reporters directed there. 

Feedback from stakeholders was overwhelmingly positive. Following the incident, a reporter emailed, “Thanks for UCF and your police department’s admirable transparency during this trying incident. Other entities could learn from how you’ve handled this event.”  More important, one parent’s comment is typical of many received by UCF: “THANK everyone involved with the updated and handling of such a delicate situation! I am confident that UCF is a safe environment for the students.” 

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