First and foremost, our deepest condolences go out to the tens of thousands of people whose lives have been shaken by today''s tragedy at Virginia Tech. We will all be holding our loved ones a little closer in the days to come.
I began my communications career as a news reporter and anchor at WRAD, a 5,000 watt radio station in Radford, Virginia, where I covered events in Radford, Pulaski County and Montgomery County, home of Virginia Tech. That was 22 years ago, but I still have strong positive feelings for those communities, which makes today''s carnage all the more chilling. The fact that my Dad lived in Blacksburg and his wife worked there make it all the more real and heartbreaking.  
When I reflect on tragedies such as this, I look for the small nuggets of wisdom that can help other organizations. The fact is that this should be a moment when public relations counselors whisper to themselves, "There but for the grace of God go I."
Handling the voracious media in the midst of this chaos only adds to the complex challenges for PR counselors. As a reporter in Chicago, I covered the first instance of a mass murderer targeting schools. Her name was Laurie Dann, a deranged college student who quit taking her medication and spiraled into a murderous rage. As a leader of the media horde, I tried to be respectful, yet facts had to be uncovered. PR representatives with the police, hospitals, schools and cities involved worked for days on end to keep the information flowing, quell rumors and ease fears.
Each of us has a workplace in which a crisis of monumental proportions that is completely outside of anyone''s control can hit at any time. As is frequently the case, this tragedy may prompt some organizations to evaluate their own policies and procedures. I am not suggesting that anything could have been done to prevent the Virginia Tech tragedy, but it is unfortunate that the focus is usually on security rather than on the human elements that contribute to workplace outbursts.
If your organization is considering what it can do to prevent workplace violence, I hope you, as the public relations advocate in the room, speak up. Public relations pros have plenty to offer for an organization tyring to assess its vulnerabilities, identify areas for improvement and act on those findings. This is the essence of issues management.
Besides, if your organization determines that changes are necessary, the communication initiatives that you spearhead will be a driving force in having those changes accepted and integrated into the corporate culture.
Perhaps most important is PR''s role in accurately assessing the work environment in order to explore how working conditions, management style and corporate culture are perceived by employees.
For such an assessment to succeed, it should be preceded by clear statements from the organization''s leadership making it clear that the process of self-evaluation is critical for guiding future actions and  total honesty is essential. These statements from leadership should assure employees of the following:
  • Their comments will be given in confidence and with anonymity;
  • Findings will not be associated with any one employee’s remarks; and
  • Employees will never face repercussions for voicing their opinions.

While I strongly recommend engaging the services of a research firm to conceive, develop and field such an internal examination, I''m convinced that doing something with whatever resources you have is better than doing nothing. Therefore, don''t limit yourself to gathering information through personal interviews or written surveys. Numerous organizations have gathered valuable information simply by encouraging employees to respond to a cut-and-send survey on the back of an internal newsletter. Other have used password-protected Web-based surveys.

Regardless of how you collect the information, it is important that you explore several key aspects of your organization''s work environment, including:
  • Working conditions;
  • Coworkers and supervisors;
  • Corporate culture;
  • Management style;
  • Quality of supervision;
  • Policies and regulations; and
  • Training.

To make the information you gather most useful, select employees to participate at random, but also include several questions that can help you lump together the data of employees who fit a particular profile, such as job title, years of service or number of days on sick-leave. When examining possible commonalities, it may even be helpful to group employees by their performance evaluation scores.

The important take-away here is to use the tragic events at Virginia Tech to illustrate the importance of a self-evaluation of your workplace. By doing so, you not only may be playing an important role in making needed workplace improvements that prevent on-the-job violence, you will be proving once again the value of public relations in proactively solving problems and protecting your organization''s reputation.