Duquesne Stands Strong After Campus Shooting

For Bridget Fare, the story began when the campus police at Duquesne University called her at 2:10 a.m. on September 17, 2006. Two teenagers who had attended a dance on campus exchanged words with a Duquesne basketball player and his teammates after the event. As the group turned to leave, the visitors began firing 9mm semi-automatic and a .38 revolver at their targets, seriously wounding three and injuring two others.

As the university’s public affairs director, Fare had prior experience working for Governor Mike Levitt of Utah, and just two months earlier had arranged for Simpson-Scarborough Communications to present a seminar on handling crises to Duquesne’s senior staff and administration. Such foresight helped everyone from President Charles Dougherty to the residence life coordinators answering their phones to survive a national media onslaught that numbered at least 450 different organizations and 1,600 individual reporter requests in the first week.

The first call jangled within the hour, before Fare herself had determined the facts of the situation. She would work approximately 115 hours (21 consecutive hours on September 17th alone) over the next seven days, despite the fact she was eight months pregnant at the time. Her two media relations staffers worked about the same lengths of time right beside her.

Here is how this private university won kudos for its response on multiple levels.


Effective Communication

Crisis management experts say how you communicate during bad news is 90 percent of this job. So from the first few minutes after the shooting, Duquesne officials stuck to a central flow of information to both its internal and external audiences, with all updates coming from the public affairs division. (Athletics, which typically runs its own PR matters, was folded into Fare’s team for this particular issue.)“Part of our exercise in the summer seminars was to identify the core audience we needed to communicate with in any type of crisis, whether it was a shooting or bad financial news. That was critical to how we were able to convey things accurately and quickly,” she said.

She set up frequent updates to feed the media and ward off reporters’ need to track down officials the university didn’t necessarily want quoted at that time. In that same vein, Fare limited the number of official spokespersons in the wee hours to herself, the president, the athletic director, and the team coach. As the hours marched by, she made people such as the student body president, a member of the basketball team, and the university’s head of counseling available to the media for emotional comments. This strategy not only kept misinformation at bay, but also allowed some privacy for students who couldn’t handle the stress of a microphone at that time.

However, when her team found inaccurate information, even if it was as minute as a wrong career listing for a student’s parent, they picked up the phone to straighten out the mistake.

Using the Associated Press pool and arranging for joint press conferences with the city police department kept some of the volume at bay,“but because there were a lot of rumors flying, it was imperative for someone on our media staff to get back individually to those reporters that did have specific questions,” she noted.


Equal Opportunity

Duquesne University took full advantage of its Website and e-mail capabilities to keep parents and other community members up-to-date, including announcing the safety policies already in place on campus. But Fare took communications to yet another level. She established a central phone number to field calls and recorded updates that would automatically greet callers at the main switchboard. Mass voicemail capabilities meant her office could push updates to employees, ensuring they received the news simultaneously with the media. According to Dougherty, this approach eventually helped ward off public pressure for action.

“One of our key messages was that this is a safe campus, and so there wasn’t a great deal more we could reasonably do except put a dome over it,” he noted.


At Face Value

In the normal course of things, university presidents carry good news and let others take care of the bad news. “But this was so bad, it was quickly obvious to us that I had to own this — it had to be my face before the media,” Dougherty said. He admits the idea made him uncomfortable until he could get his facts lined up, but with a national story on both the news and sports pages looming, “I had to represent the university.”

As a result, the situation painted Dougherty in a leadership, positive light, Fare adds. They needed to cash in on that goodwill when the investigation later revealed one of Duquesne’s students was charged as an accomplice in the investigation. “We didn’t anticipate that and had to adjust our positioning. Because we responded quickly, it was received with almost a sympathetic tone by the media,” she added.


Standing Strong

Roughly 75 percent of the correspondence Dougherty fielded in the early days was expressions of support and prayer. But underneath the well wishes pulsed a small drumbeat: what will you do now to make your campus safe?

“The temptation would have been to say we are going to do 100 things at once, but the message then would have been that the campus was not safe and it took this crisis to make us act,” he pointed out. “In fact, we have a very outstanding safety record, so we made it clear we were not going to move to an impregnable campus.”

He did dispatch law enforcement immediately to each residence hall and beefed up overnight patrols on September 17. But instead of implementing knee-jerk new policies, on the third day Dougherty asked the campus chief of police to submit a wish list for enhanced safety measures. The two picked off the ones they could do quickly, such as hiring three additional security guards and another police officer. For the rest, he appointed an ad hoc committee chaired by a university board member and including representatives from the student body, faculty, the police, and administrators to investigate Duquesne’s culpability in the shootings and recommend additional safety measures.

The committee’s research determined the campus hadn’t inadvertently fueled the situation — and although the report hasn’t been printed yet, oral recommendations have been what Dougherty terms “marginal changes.” Among the suggestions: additional crowd control measures for larger groups of students, upgrading the security cameras beginning with the oldest, and adding external lighting on campus. Thanks to decisions made before the September 17 shooting, Duquesne introduced a bicycle patrol in October 2006.

“We don’t believe this will drive down the crime rate — it’s a confidence-building measure when you know the police can make it quickly to the scene regardless of the roads on campus,” Dougherty explained. He also learned that signage at the campuses’ intersections was not as user-friendly as the administration thought, so plans are underway to replace all street signs with larger ones to aid emergency vehicles.

But the most helpful tool was one he didn’t identify in advance. “We were very fortunate to have in place a very highly developed sense of community here at Duquesne. You can’t build a sense of community in a crisis. So building a sustaining, enriching sense of people caring for one another should be job one of a university president, because that’s the most important asset you have when trouble comes,” he pointed out.

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