The Situation: Four Lynn University students and two faculty members died in the second earthquake in Haiti in January 12, 2010. They were in the Hotel Montana when the entire structure collapsed. Several other students and faculty members had already left the hotel and were on the way to the airport to return to Boca Raton. They had been in Haiti on a Journey of Hope, a community service project that students and faculty had participated in for several years prior to the 2010 tragedy.
This earthquake occurred at 4:53 p.m., just as most people at Lynn University were leaving campus. Laura Vann Stephens received a phone call on the way home regarding the earthquake and the fact that the one group of students was safe after the earthquake. She returned to the university to start putting together the steps of a communications plan that was already in effect.
As she has explained, the university had planned for a shooting on campus or some other incidents, but never something that included students and faculty in a Caribbean country that truly had limited communications on a good day, much less after two earthquakes.
Lynn University already had a separate communications plan throughout the campus that could be activated, as needed. After the first communications from the students and faculty who were NOT in the hotel, the university did not hear anything for 48 hours.
This communications site is lynn.edu/alert. It is a WordPress program on a separate server where the university could post updates all day long and anyone, even today, could go to the ALERT address to review previous messages. It was available for media, students, faculty, parents, community leaders, etc. to know what information was available and how the university was proceeding.
As an example, Laura explained the main service would get about 1,400 unique visitors during a regular day on campus. Following the earthquake, the visits to the server jumped 740 percent or 10,000 visits per day and Lynn University became the 25th most popular search site on Google.
The university also used Flickr to handle many photos that needed to be uploaded periodically. Laura said that 900 photos were posted at one point.
In the communications plan, she explained that the university marketing team handled media requests and served as the sole contacts for the event. They hosted three press conferences per day with the head of the marketing department as the spokesperson. Those press conferences could be at 11 p.m., especially if new information was expected.
For the more serious / emotional events, University President Kevin Ross served as the spokesperson, not only to the media, but for interaction with students on campus and the families of the missing children and faculty members. The four students (all girls) and two faculty members were missing for 13 days before their bodies were taken from the devastation of the hotel. Laura showed an emotional video from a father who was told that his daughter was found alive. Lynn couldn’t confirm that until some time later when it was determined that she was one of the dead students.
Lynn University actually hired a company to travel to Haiti and work with rescue workers to assist in finding the students and faculty. Laura explained that it is known that people can survive up to 15 days without food and water. When that time frame approached, the government changed the objectives of the missions from search and recovery to rescue, which meant they only expected to find dead bodies.
The marketing team would actually decline interviews with the Today Show and other major media in order to make sure that every media outlet received the same information. It also enabled the Marketing Dept. and the President to concentrate on the crisis rather than being constantly interrupted by a different set of questions from different media throughout each day.
Laura’s job was to control the media and manage expectations. She made sure the media was assigned to a certain parking area on campus and even paid attention to the background for TV or photography shots. There were no individual interviews, but group interviews, press conferences and conference calls were arranged. Laura made sure that she personally returned every single phone call and email from the media. At one point, she posted a phone contact on the emergency website, but after 3,000 phone calls, she had to remove the number and return to posting on the ALERT site and group interviews.
The university put together a community gathering for the students and families to get some answers directly and to talk with each other without media interruption. Local media did ask for student perspectives of the situation and Laura, knowing students personally, asked them if they would like to respond to media questions. Otherwise, the university kept students on campus for security purposes. The students that agreed to be interviewed were prepped for the interview.
The marketing team also tried to be pro-active with providing updates to the media, making sure only confirmed facts were provided. The President’s remarks were posted on the ALERT site as he was speaking. The media had access to that. When the “bad intelligence” was provided regarding the students being alive, they worked on getting that confirmed. A TV interview with a father pleaded for President Obama to send more rescue people to Haiti to find his child and others. It was a very emotional roller coaster for everyone involved. The father thought he saw his daughter on a Facebook page and that spread the rumor in many locations that the students were alive.
Lynn did not encourage the families to do interviews and tried to give them a location where they could get the Information that they needed. All the parents came to Lynn, knowing that was the source of information. Lynn then had to find hotel accommodations and other services for them.
Journey of Hope – Haiti
Students hosted Hope vigils on campus in order to be together and the media was not allowed in those areas. Lynn has 2,200 students. The students made and sold bracelets to raise money to help somehow in the situation. Only students who came to the front of campus had agreed to be interviewed
The State Dept. declared the recovery over 15 days after the earthquake. It was time to accept the loss and time to grieve for the students, the parents, the university personnel and the surrounding communities in the Boca area, plus the hometown communities of the students and faculty members.
Focus on Your Audience (Check the facts before you release it)
Respect the messengers / Parents could have blamed the university for bad messages, but didn’t
The bodies were found and recovered one month and two days after the quake. Private ceremonies were coordinated in their hometowns and Lynn representatives attended them all. In return, the families came to Memorial Services established by Lynn on campus.
Laura created a Media Kit with background information on the university on the Journey of Hope mission and previous trips with photos. Two pools feeds were established and media made decision on who would represent them at various memorial events. Again, Lynn blocked off parking for media. Laura pointed out that the sooner you can figure this kind of information, the more steps you are ahead when a tragedy like this occurs. It’s all in the preparation!!
Lynn photographer also took shots at Memorial Services and Laura promised that the photos would be posted by 3 p.m. following each event.
Lynn hosted a Day of Caring (January 12, 2011) (5 a.m – 11 p.m.) on the one year anniversary. They did not want it to be a sad event, but instead a celebration of the community service these students were doing at the time of the earthquake through the Journey of Hope. The students coordinated the projects for the day, which included preparing 25,000 meals to be sent to Haiti.
There was a moment of silence at 4:53 p.m., the time the earthquake struck. Three student survivors are still on campus and could are available for interviews. Several of the other students have graduated.
She prepared a second media kit with an outline of the 10 different service projects for the Day of Caring. Three projects were on campus and the others in the community. The Day of Caring is now an annual event in memory of what those students were doing in Haiti. Again, Laura posts photos on Flickr by 10 p.m. after each event.
A Remembrance Plaza is under construction on campus to recognize the four students and two faculty members. It will be finished in January and consists of a waterfall, photos of them, etc. The parents have asked for the dedication to be private in the Spring so they can do their own thing.
Had a strong dedication to community service
Quality Enhancement Plan is now part of the culture of Lynn University and everyone on campus must do some type of community project. No classes are scheduled for the days off and on campus
“The families and survivors will always be part of us,” said Laura. “Their difficult feelings and their hardships in dealing with all of this.”
As for the media, give the media everything you can / Every detail of everything you can / Where they can find everything / Even the background information on the Journey of Hope, which had been part of Lynn for 6 – 7 years before the earthquake occurred.
Control of Media? Lynn has more control since it is a private university and can restrict where the media goes on campus, plus can usually find the media and return them to the media location if they wander off on their own.
Rebellious media? Yes, there were argumentative types / Few got into the middle of campus / As a smaller campus, the media can be escorted back to the main area / One of the Spanish TV stations berated the students to tears, asking them: How does it feel that your best friend is dead?
Emergency site is Word Press blog? Again, as a private university, it could establish this special site for all information and have more control over interviews and other media contacts. In their university, the PR department is set up as the ONLY ONE for the messages and no one else can do anything. Other universities, especially public facilities, have difficulty with that control.
Student privacy / signed waivers??? / legal processes??? At Lynn, students sign ahead of time at the school. In the Student Handbook, there is a rule regarding media and instructors in employee handbook or contracts / with the students, someone on campus has this info / Much stuff came from parents / FB
Did not use FB and sent media to the website / Used it sparingly because we wanted all the information at one site, particularly since it was confirmed and eliminates confusion. Hotel Montana was the site in Haiti and started posting its own items when people or bodies were found.
Every 3 or 4 hours, Lynn was in touch with contacts in Haiti, including the company it hired.
What about the emotional side for you? You didn’t think about the emotional side. These people are never coming back. It doesn’t seem real still. Was doing things for the families and wanted to assist them. Wouldn’t you want your Dad to do this for you?
“You don’t let it hit you,” Laura said.
About Laura Vann Stepehens
Laura Vann Stephens never thought she would be dealing with officials in a Caribbean government when she took on the job of public relations specialist for Lynn University, a private educational facility in Boca Raton. Neither did she think that four students and two faculty members would have died during a second earthquake in Haiti as a Lynn group was attempting to assist families and individuals in the country.
A Georgia native, Laura received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Lynn and started working in the Marketing and Communications Dept. at the university immediately after graduating. Stephens is a new name for her, having married in June.