Northern Illinois University

NIU Office of Public Affairs

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News Release

Contact: NIU Public Affairs
(815) 753-1681 

June 8, 2009

NIU wins nation's top PR award
for handling of 2008 campus tragedy

NEW YORK – Northern Illinois University’s Office of Public Affairs received the nation’s top award for public relations at a ceremony last week in New York City. NIU was honored by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) for its work following the tragic February 14, 2008 campus shooting that brought intense public and news media attention to the DeKalb, Illinois campus. NIU won both a category award – Best Crisis Communications – and the overall Best of the Silver Anvil Award. NIU President John Peters and Assistant Vice President for Public Affairs Melanie Magara accepted the awards on behalf of NIU.

“A tragedy was met with the best of human nature and the best in public relations practices at Northern Illinois University,” said PRSA Chair and CEO Michael Cherenson. “The NIU Public Affairs office shared information, inspiration and compassion as quickly and completely as possible. Their amazing work is what the Best of Silver Anvil was created to recognize, and we salute their efforts.”
John Peters, Melanie Magara, Michael Cherenson

NIU President John Peters and Melanie Magara,
assistant vice president for public affairs,
accept the Silver Anvil award from PRSA Chair & CEO Michael Cherenson, Thursday, June 4, in New York City.

Shortly after 3 p.m. on February 14, 2008, a gunman burst onto the stage of a large NIU lecture hall and began firing into an audience of nearly 150 undergraduate students. When his rampage was over, six people lay dead and 19 others were injured. The NIU Office of Public Affairs immediately went into crisis mode, handling everything from emergency alerts, news conferences and message development to media relations, event management and speechwriting.

“The preparedness and response to this tragic occurrence reflect the highest level of performance in our profession,” said James J. Roop, Silver Anvil Committee Chair. “We’re proud to recognize the team at NIU with our Best of Silver Anvil Award.”

“Last year’s tragedy was the darkest day in our university’s history, yet it brought out the best in so many members of our campus community,” said NIU President John Peters. “The tireless efforts and outstanding skills of our Public Affairs office were nothing short of inspiring, and it is tremendously gratifying to see their work acknowledged with this award.”

When the eyes of the world were focused on DeKalb, Illinois, NIU’s public relations department “consistently provided a story of preparedness, transparency, compassion, courage and healing,” said PRSA officials. “One year later, campus, community, media, government and professional audiences call NIU’s response exemplary, and they single out the university’s communication practices for special praise. More importantly, NIU has emerged from crisis with its reputation as a safe and caring institution intact, and inspired by an increase in applications from prospective students.”

“From the beginning, we committed ourselves to sharing everything we knew as quickly and completely as possible,” said Melanie Magara, assistant vice president for public affairs. “We approached the news media as partners rather than adversaries, and took advantage of their platforms to send messages of hope and healing. But most of all, we were prepared: We had a plan, we had practiced that plan, and we had learned from the experiences and generous advice of others, including our counterparts at Virginia Tech.”

Magara credited the work of her staff – Jennice O’Brien, Joe King, Pat Erickson, Mark McGowan, Tom Parisi, Rachel Xidis and Katy Whitelaw – for keeping worried parents, students, faculty, staff and alumni informed from the very earliest minutes of the tragedy through last spring’s anniversary observance.

“They were incredibly well-prepared and dedicated to doing things the right way,” Magara said. “These awards recognize a snapshot in time, but all of them bring the same level of professionalism to their jobs every day, and I’m very proud to work with such a great group of people.”

PRSA is the world’s largest organization for public relations professionals, and its prestigious “Silver Anvil” awards are considered the icon of the industry’s best practice. Nearly 900 entries from business and industry, PR firms, independent practitioners, government, hospitals, schools, non-profit corporations and the military were considered for this year’s award competition.

For more information, visit the PRSA website at: