Department of the Year Award
2020 National Winner
The Department of the Year Award recognizes outstanding accomplishment in student and campus safety by a U.S. college or university administrative department.
California State University, Fullerton
University Police Department
Strategic Communications and Brand Management
The stabbing death of Steven Chan, a former university administrator, at Cal State Fullerton on Aug. 19, 2019, left a lasting impression on our campus community. As professional communicators, we were thrust into the national spotlight as we scrambled to provide care and comfort to our campus community through strategic messaging while also working with several campus and off-campus agencies investigating the case.
Strategic Communications’ main goal was to keep the campus community informed about the apprehend the suspect as well as what we were doing for our campus staff, faculty, and students affected by this tragic act. We also had the simultaneous task of responding to media from across the nation looking to fill their 24/7 news cycle.
We faced several issues and obstacles that hindered our initial communications. The stabbing happened between 8:15 a.m. and 8:25 a.m. when staff were arriving to work on a Monday. Our university police received a 911 call about a man needing medical attention in the parking lot. That changed rapidly as they realized that the victim was stabbed multiple times and the area turned quickly into a crime scene. University staff and faculty watched the horrific scene unfold in front of their eyes and began to speculate about the suspect and his or her whereabouts.
We also had to work with separate police agencies investigating the case – Fullerton Police Department was the lead agency since it was a murder and University Police Department assisted in the investigation. Early on we were limited to information from Fullerton PD but we quickly worked out a communications plan and worked with both departments to give accurate information about the case using standard press releases and non-traditional communications such as Facebook Live for press conferences, and Twitter post from our team as well as the University Police Department. The plan worked well because we worked in concert with law enforcement in our efforts to deliver messaging that was accurate and authoritative.
While crisis responses are never perfect especially at the onset, our communications team did an outstanding job of staying the course, teaming up with law enforcement public information officers and effectively calming nerves while giving up-to-date and factual information.
The overall lesson learned is that no matter what we must always show compassion and empathy for our employees and make sure we direct them to resources to help them cope or survive a crisis.
Our communications efforts were as timely as one could expect during a fluid event like a murder on a college campus a week before the start of classes. We train and prepare for these moments and hope when the time comes, we will execute a perfect plan. Our first communications were hampered by lack of information, two law enforcement agencies working the scene and some hesitation about what we could post. We quickly formed a rapid response that told people there was an issue going on and that we would update regularly. The news media got ahead of us and were reporting facts we had not released or were inaccurate. We had to deal with all that as well as taking care of the needs of affected personnel and our campus community.
By the end of the day, we were receiving praise from our community especially after the president’s letter and video were posted. The biggest lesson learned is to communicate what you know, reassure our audience, empathy for those affected by a tragedy and always making sure to correct erroneous information with accurate details.
The 2020 Department of the Year Award will be presented to California State University, Fullerton and the two Department of the Year Award Finalist at the National Campus Safety Summit Award Luncheon on February 26, 2020 (Day 1 of the conference).
All conference attendees are welcome at the (free) gourmet buffet luncheon. Join us in honoring this year’s recipients.