What the Purple Tunnel of Doom Teaches Us About Crisis Communications

Flag waving and celebrations at the US capitol building in Washington DC

The gathering on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. to watch the swearing-in of President Barack Obama was “the largest pro-government demonstration in U.S. history”, according to one observer. The moment spawned a cottage industry of memorabilia makers, a fascination with Aretha Franklin’s lovely hat and a spirit of goodwill as we wait for an economic recovery program to kick-in.

It also had another curious outcome: social media made a transition from being a force in the campaign to being a force in government. And in that is a story about crisis management for the electronic age.

As one of the members of the new Facebook survivor’s group “The Purple Tunnel of Doom” I can’t help but be fascinated to watch how this story plays out. This social media group’s size has exploded from 150 members at 1:18PM the day Obama was sworn in as President, to over 5,447 members in six days flat.

In a remarkable turn of events, and in the midst of a congressional investigation to sort out the mess, U.S. Senate Sgt at Arms, Terrance William Gainer, has bestowed standing and status on the Facebook group’s founders in an apparent attempt to save face and apologize for stranding thousands of ticket-holders outside the gates at the inaugural ceremony.

So I’ve decided to make this article a diary of sorts which has nibbles of my conventional wisdom of crisis communications 101. It will cover:

  • What happened, my personal account
  • The five types of crisis – and where this one fits in
  • The arc of the story from the media’s POV
  • From the organization’s perspective
  • Elements of a short-term crisis strategy


Inaugural 2009 – The purple tunnel of doom; View the slideshow

In case you missed it, on inaugural day thousands of purple ticket holders were herded into the third street tunnel, which snakes under the U.S. Capitol Hill grounds between the House and Senate office buildings. These ticket-holders were led to believe this was the place to be to get admitted to the ceremony by both a herd mentality and at least one flustered police officer looking to clear clogged streets outside the Capitol.

So thousands of would-be inaugural participants clutched their tickets and huddled together into the passageway, inching forward throughout the morning.

We were headed to the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.

Underground several police vehicles, sirens blaring, and scattered VIP town cars darted through the otherwise closed roadway. Mostly, the cavern was dominated by eager would-be inaugural attendees who seemed to propagate dramatically as the minutes and hours passed. The “tunnel people” were from all across the country, some with kids in tow. I was among them and can report everyone’s spirits were high. At one point, someone started a stadium ‘wave’ from the front of the line the back. Later, another part of the crowd broke into spontaneous song, singing “lean on me.” It was clear it would be a long wait, but a naive confidence still held that the tickets would eventually gain entry for all who held them.

At the same time, something seemed a bit off. The vehicles that passed through careened dangerously close to the crowd for my taste. None of the famed port-a-potties — 7000 strong by press accounts –were in sight. Cell phone and radio signals didn’t work.

Not a single official was directing the masses inside the tunnel or at the entrance in South East. Where Metro and other transit officers had elaborately planned and well executed systems to keep travelers informed on the way into the city, once you hit the pavement things changed dramatically. It was quickly apparent that those in charge of the overall event deployed their security people at the perimeter, and not toward crowd-control and crowd-movement efforts.

So both above and below ground, the channels of human traffic that winded across all roads leading to the ticketed gates and other parts of the Smithsonian Mall were on our own. No bullhorns. No signage. No ticket-checking before gaining entry to a line. Nobody in a vest or uniform to ask questions or direct the confusion. We were on our own.

As the roads in front of the Hilton turned into shoulder to shoulder would-be inaugural attendees, one police officer was captured on a YouTube video directing everyone to the “sidewalks” – which drew a laugh from the crowd – before he directed everyone to the third-street tunnel. Others, like me, entered the tunnel from the House side of the Capitol following the river of a crowd instead of directions from a flustered officer.

Instead of being alarmed at the surreal events, the purple tunnel people tried to be in good humor about their circumstance. We were clinging to the hope that we would somehow get into the ceremony when it the reality was it was next to impossible to do so.

Yet, it appears that the only people who actually got into the Smithsonian Mall to observe the swearing in where those sly enough to recognize the debacle they were in and develop an early exit strategy. Those who succeeded in making their way to the yellow ticketing area found themselves inside the gate. Those who placed trust in their officials or believed a ticket would be honored as a pass inside the gate would be disappointed because everyone else from the tunnel crowd was shut out of the event.

I had my own back-up plan: a trusty transistor radio. Perhaps it was my former credentials as a girl scout, one friend noted. Shortly after 11:00 AM I found myself within sight of the gates at Louisiana and C Streets, SW, and it didn’t look promising. The Capitol dome was visible through the trees on the lawn, and you could barely make out the flags that hung down by the stage. As the clock clicked closer to the 11:30 start-time for the ceremony I tested reception for the radio, put up the antenna and promptly drew a crowd of about 20 new friends cupping their ears and eager to hear what they could not witness: President Obama’s remarkable speech.


Rumors started flying about what had happened and haven’t stopped since:

  • Did they print up too many tickets, or as one shut-out attendee speculated, were there counterfeit copies made?
  • Was there a security breach at another gate that demanded the security folks assigned to clear the purple tickets had to go to the other side of the Mall?
  • Did the Bush motorcade to the Capitol cause a lock-down of Pennsylvania Avenue?
  • Was the door through the gate large enough to accommodate the people who had to go through?
  • Did the Secret Service assigned to our gate get stuck in traffic and not show up in time to do their job?

It was an extraordinary break-down in an otherwise uplifting and inspiring day as the nation’s spirits soared with the peaceful transfer of power to Barack Obama and his administration.

After the fact, officials seemed to boast about nobody getting hurt and took pains to pat themselves on the back for a job well done.

But the scary fact is, anyone – with or without a ticket – could have wandered into that tunnel at any time before or during the ceremony. As one commenter noted in a YouTube documentary about the episode, imagine the havoc a terrorist could have caused by joining the crowd under the tunnel bent on exploding something. Almost every official in the U.S. government was above ground yards from where the tunnel passed through. It would have been a tragedy of enormous proportions.

As I pondered all this later that day, I went to the Internet to see what I could find out. It didn’t take long for the blogs to heat up here, here and here. Social media skills that had been honed in electing a President were seamlessly transferred to the task of seeking redress to their elected officials. True to their nature, some organizers in the crowd struck out on Facebook and launched the “Purple Tunnel of Doom” Facebook group. Citizen journalists started posting their accounts on YouTube and just about everywhere on the blogosphere. The main stream media followed at first in a trickle, and then with greater force. What developed was a classic communications crisis, and everyone now got to watch Sen. Diane Feinstein, the head of the Joint Inaugural Committee and the Senate Sgt of Arms and former capital police chief Terrance Gainer face the critics.

Gainer’s out of the gate response was not pretty. He started by blaming the victims and the “bulky coats” of those inside the gate keeping others out. Without apparently researching the available satellite photography showing the size of the crows, he pondered that perhaps 4000 were inconvenienced and patted his team on the back for the 98 percent of satisfied customers. These were classic communications blunders that only served to aggravate the critics.

Calls were flying – some placed by ticket-holders at the gate to friends on the Hill – and it took only two days for Sen. Diane Feinstein the chair of the Joint Inaugural Committee to convene the law enforcement officials and call for a full investigation into the days’ events.


The arc of a media crisis follows predictable patterns.

First, disaster strikes or is announced as impending. By eyewitness accounts, the gates were supposed to open at 9AM, and except for a lucky few who passed through those who lined up at the tunnel did not make it into the event. From the posted YouTube video documentaries, it was clear before the sun rose that a problem was brewing. On the site photos of the bottleneck show a sea of humanity.

Generally, the striking characteristic of this stage of the crisis is the speed of communication. But here the problem was in fact lack of communication. The communication that existed from the participants’ perspective was confined to the rumor mill. The media seemed slow on the uptake here, and the blogs and citizen journalists led the way, complete with a detailed Google Map to pin-point what happened.

It is unknown whether the command-center for the security team was getting any accurate communications about the developing debacle. If the YouTube snapshot of the officer outside the Hilton directing folks to the sidewalks or the tunnel is any clue, it seems that the officials on the ground were operating on an old or misunderstood playbook. Perhaps the officer’s job when he was detailed to that corner in the morning was to keep the streets clear for emergency vehicles. The tunnel idea seemed to be spontaneous. Indeed, SSA Gainer now tells us the tunnel was never supposed to be a place to line up – the plan was for it to be a pedestrian walk-way.

The second stage of a crisis is where the media is the major source of information, even for government. In this age of citizen journalism, it was not the main stream media that got this story first. It was the blogosphere and eye witness accounts loaded up to the Web on Facebook comments, blogs and YouTube videos. The best and earliest online account was at the HuffPost, not the Washington Post. Later, a report in the Washington Post online edition indicates that the Sgt at Arms was only convinced his initial assessments were wrong after some of the victims of the fiasco visited with him and shared video accounts of what happened that were ricocheting all over the Internet.

The chief problem for the government, citizens and media alike at this junction is separating rumors from accurate information.

The third stage is when the media tries to make sense of situation. Here, there is an attempt to place it in a larger perspective. Aside from efforts to remind anyone who asks that Obama and his family had a safe day and no arrests were made of the crowd of visitors over one million strong, this stage seems a bit unfinished.

It is not apparent that the media or the government officials have truly gotten through this stage. How real was the risk of thousands of people stuffed in a tunnel under the grounds of the Capitol? The lack of attention to basic crowd control and event management is troubling on several levels. Some of the commentary in the social media space are asking the right questions and raising the right alarms.


From the perspective of the organization that is at the center of the crisis, communication mavens say there are seven stages in the life-cycle of a crisis:

  1. Denial
  2. Wishful thinking
  3. Anger and aggression
  4. Spin
  5. Damage control
  6. Reconstruction
  7. Recovery

With a plan, you get to skip the first four phases! It is apparent from my perspective that there was no plan. The commentary from SSA Gainer shows that his organization is lumbering through the first four.

Indeed, some Facebook posters have suggested that the aggression phase was actually “passive aggressive” in nature. They posit that the officers at the scene knew people weren’t going to make it in and rather than communicate so ticket-holders could make other arrangements they chose silence because they were afraid of the reaction they’d get from telling the truth.

Today the SAA and Joint Inaugural Committee have entered the realm of damage control. Spurred by the Washington post story, Gainer reached out to the founders of the “Purple Tunnel of Doom” Facebook group, inviting them to a meeting and Committee Chair posting a press release saying an investigation was on.

Reconstructing the events is now underway in what some reports say are endless meetings with the powers that be to get information out on the table and understand what happened from a foundation of facts.


If you are in the midst of a communication crisis, what you need first and foremost is a short-term strategy. It should have three parts:

  1. Be Accountable
  2. Take Action
  3. Commit to Change
  • Feel the pain.
    • Acknowledge that this is a bad situation. Show the emotions anyone would feel. If appropriate, visit those impacted and make it clear their well-being comes first
  • Accept responsibility.
    • Do not appear to be covering up. Offer an apology if appropriate
    • Do not scapegoat
  • Do something
    • Bemoaning a lack of resources or blaming others is not recommended. It sounds like whining
  • Describe a plan: people want an investigation
    • Involve the community in finding new course, but don’t implicate the community in what happened
    • Be prepared to respond to why a potentially dangerous situation was not noticed earlier
    • When you investigate, you need plausible answers to four question groups:
      1. What’s going on?
      2. How long has it been going on?
      3. How long have you known about it?
      4. What have you done so far?
  • Don’t expect secrets to remain secrets
    • Review your primary source materials – anything that is public record
    • Examine press reports and social media channels.
  • Accept responsibility, show concern, and explain that changes will be made so that it will be harder for this situation to happen again
  • Implement the changes, and monitor their effectiveness


By my count, the U.S. Senate Sgt at Arms has fallen flat on all ten parts of my crisis survivor’s guide, at least in the early stages. With his recent outreach to the Facebook group, it seems he has regained some equilibrium and is starting to dig out.

If you are in the middle of a communications crisis, resist the urge to feel pity for yourself or your predicament. You may feel like a victim of forces beyond your control and burdened by the weight of circumstances you cannot explain.

Remember, the public will judge you on factors that in fact are well within your control:

  • Your empathy and capacity to care
  • Your competence, expertise or readiness
  • Your honesty and openness
  • Your dedication and commitment

DSC03204Here’s a footnote: what saved my Inaugural day – my trusty radio – was purchased in the wake of the George Bush Department of Homeland Security warning to those of us who live in the nation’s capitol to go out and buy duck tape and plastic sheeting for our windows to prepare for an attack.

The irony? It seems the draconian post 9-11 security measures were at least partly to blame for me and others missing this historic moment.