Va. Tech Strove To Protect Its Image
Memos Show Intent To Stress Healing After Shootings

By Theresa Vargas and Kameel Stanley
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, August 4, 2008

A week after the Virginia Tech killings, as a still-numb campus braced for classes to resume, university officials lined up a cast of speakers for the media: four students, three faculty members and a counselor.

Each, in his or her own words, described the significance of that day. They spoke about not being defined by the April 16, 2007, tragedy, about the power of tradition and the desire to move toward the future. They, according to a memo tucked away in the University Relations office, "followed the coaching session instructions beyond excellent."

"If we had scripted this entire event, we could not have done a better job than these folks did, spontaneously," reads a memo created for the University Relations office. "One of the professors, who did not participate, made a comment that if we got our participants from central casting, we would not have had better players."

The memo is one of about 20,000 documents recently released following a Freedom of Information Act request by The Washington Post and other newspapers. In a June 17 settlement, attorneys for the victims' families and attorneys for the state and university agreed before Richmond Circuit Court Judge Theodore J. Markow that thousands of documents pertaining to the shooting and the school's response would be made public.

University officials said that they have until mid-December to create a public archive of the documents and that it will eventually include the academic records of student gunman Seung Hui Cho and e-mails from senior university officials, including University President Charles W. Steger.

What has been released so far is five cardboard boxes brimming with papers that contain little information about Cho, the 32 students and faculty members he killed or how top university officials responded that morning. Instead, many of the documents appear to come from the University Relations office and paint a picture of a campus striving to preserve its image amid unthinkable horror and under the blinding, unprecedented spotlight of the media.

"I don't think we could have handled it any differently or any better," university spokesman Larry Hincker said this week. "To be able to help over 1,000 reporters when we were down on our knees in tears."

Records show page after page of media requests, ranging from local newspapers to Oprah Winfrey, on the day of the shooting and in the weeks and months afterward. Although less than a handful of reporters usually cover commencement, about 400 filled the campus in May 2007. The world, through the distance afforded by television and newspapers, couldn't help watching how the campus coped, wondering how this ever could have happened.

The records now give a microscopic view of how Virginia Tech dealt with the flood of coverage. Memos outline key talking points for faculty members and students, and daily logs rank newspaper articles as "positive," "neutral" or "negative." A "negative" one from the Queens (New York) Courier is about a basketball star who transferred schools after the tragedy.

Within a week of the incident, one memo shows, university officials had developed a media strategy that centered on three main messages: "We will not be defined by this event," "Invent the future" and "Embrace the Virginia Tech Family."

Officials believed that promoting those messages would help the healing process, documents show.

"We are regaining control of the Virginia Tech reputation and legacy, and believe these messages are crucial to accomplishing that goal," Hincker wrote in a letter to his colleagues.

The office was not only reactive -- scrambling to arrange interviews and coordinate reporters -- but it was proactive in the image it put out.

A two-page memo from Chris Clough, who works in the University Relations office, is dedicated to the language choices the school had to make.

"We likely will live with the label 'Virginia Tech massacre,' or 'Virginia Tech tragedy' for years to come in the media, however, we can use our own language in our own media to help prevent the event from defining us and may gain success in influencing history," he wrote.

Clough offered three suggestions on how to refer to the killings. The first is the "West AJ/Norris tragedy" because it "confines the incident to specific locations within the university and doesn't allow it to completely define the university," he wrote. Then there is the "Holocaust Day tragedy" because the shooting fell on the same day as the Holocaust remembrance day Yom Hashoah. Finally, he suggests, the "Best and Brightest tragedy."

"This focuses attention on the victims, and what the world has come to know about them as individuals and as a group, both students and professors, for their outstanding quality and contribution to the university community and society," Clough wrote. In the end, none of the labels would catch on.

A walk around campus today reveals that students and professors, if they refer to that day at all, say only "4/16," the date of the shooting. Clough had noted that might happen.

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