Crisis Lessons from Va. Tech: Social Media Critical In Reaching All Stakeholders

Reuters photo of Va. Tech students at Tuesday’s Convocation.

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Virginia Tech will never be the same after the horrible shooting incident Monday. Neither will the practice of crisis communications at a university or other large institution.

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Virginia Tech President Charles Steger is coming under a lot of heat, most of it unfair in my opinion, for the way the crisis was managed. But unfair or not, the criticism from students, parents, alumni and others is part of this whole hellish week for Virginia Tech, and it demands a proper response. Diane Sawyer asked Steger point blank Tuesday on Good Morning America if he would resign.

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Much of the criticism has centered on how the university communicated to its students and other stakeholders in the critical two-hour period before the second shooting incident.

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In countless interviews, including this from the AP, Steger emphasized that the university closed off the dorm after the first attack and relied on e-mail to spread the word to the rest of the campus. Unfortunately, it took a precious two hours to send the e-mails.

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Most communications people likely would have followed a similar communications strategy, relying heavily on e-mail to reach students and others throughout the campus. We rely on email and certainly would check it frequently in time of crisis.

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But that’s not the way college students communicate today. Talk to students at any university if you don’t believe it, but they rarely check their old-fashioned e-mail; they rely on Facebook. Students may check their e-mail just once a week and their Facebook account 30 or more times a day.

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Facebook was far and away the preferred means of getting on-the-spot information for students during the first critical two hours and beyond, even after the mass media arrived on the scene and began blanket coverage.

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Twenty-four hours after the shooting stopped, more than 500 Facebook groups had contributed significantly to the global conversation about the slayings. One new group with an astounding 62,356 members, mostly students at other universities, encouraged all to wear VT school colors of maroon and orange Wednesday, saying “Forget any and all college affiliations today. For today we are all Hokies.” The group also designated an AIM chat name of “TodayWeAreAllHokies” for a giant instant-messaging conversation.

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YouTube also proved to be an important medium for students all over the country and abroad to express their condolences and solidarity with Va. Tech. Again, just 24 hours after the shootings there were 421 videos posted, including this heartfelt message from Vick Jaiswal.

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These conversations were not only critical in getting information to people who desperately wanted it; they continue to shape the university’s reputation with the global community of college students, a critical constituency for any university.

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Crisis plans often focus on the mass media with inadequate thought paid to other important stakeholder groups. Every large organization’s crisis plan should include rapid means of communicating with all stakeholders, in the manner most effective for reaching each group. Don’t overlook social media, such as Facebook for today’s university students; myspace for today’s high school students; and likely something else altogether tomorrow.

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.- Jon Harmon

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Postscript: I checked with Gerald Baron at crisisblogger (Disclosure: a business partner of Force for Good) to see if his PIER contact-management system can interface directly with Facebook. Here is his swift reply:

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“Partly in response to your e-mail as well as a discussion with one of our clients, we will be issuing later today instructions to our university users of PIER as to how they can link PIER-created content to student Facebook pages.

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“Essentially, the university will create its own Facebook page, setting up an RSS feed from a dedicated PIER document. Then the university promotes the content to students to add the university’s Facebook page as a “friend.” It will then become an automated part of the notification process, that can also include SMS messaging, text-to-voice phone messaging as well as e-mail and web posting.”

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Comments

  1. That’s a very interesting insight into student communications – in the UK text messaging to mobile phones is the easiest and quickest way to reach all students. They don’t generally email on the move yet, but SMS text each other all the time.
    I’m not sure how many Universities or colleges have recorded the guys mobile numbers or whether they have the technology to send mass texts if needed, though.
    Fortunately, such shooting incidents have never happened at a UK University, but if our illegal gun culture spreads from the inner cities, who knows…

  2. Adam Denison says:

    I think this tragedy highlights the extreme importance of social media today. Social media is no longer used for entertainment, but as a vital means of communication. A Facebook user myself, I log on multiple times a day to keep in touch with friends I haven’t seen in years.
    I was interested in your statistic about students checking Facebook 30 times a day. Where did you get this info?

  3. Jon Harmon says:

    Adam:
    The “30 times a day” is anecdotal expressed to me by two different college students (at Indiana University and Western Michigan University). It does seem to be an extreme number and I probably shouldn’t have quoted it the way I did. The relevant point is that many students use Facebook as a primary means of communication and check it multiple times daily, far more often than e-mail.

  4. Vahsek says:

    I was not well yesterday so did not know the news.
    When heard the news, I am shocked.
    HOw can a person be so brutal? but for a mental, perspectives to see the world may be very different.
    I think the US universities should ask for the mental health certificate before enrolling students.
    Also, shouldn’t the US government think over its policies/freedom that allows people to buy and sell lethal weapons like pen?
    Gun culture doesn’t bode good news to any society.

  5. Judy Gombita says:

    “Fortunately, such shooting incidents have never happened at a UK University, but if our illegal gun culture spreads from the inner cities, who knows…”
    Heather, it *can* happen anywhere. Montreal, Quebec, for example has been home to four such tragic school-shooting incidences, the most recent being this past September, at Dawson College:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dawson_College_shooting
    And the worst (in terms of carnage) dates back to December 1989, at the École Polytechnique Massacre. The name of 25-year-old Marc Lépine is now infamous for all-Canadian eternity as the man who shot 14 women and wounded four men and 10 women, before committing suicide.
    Canadian gun control laws (not to mention general attitudes) are much stricter; however, if someone wants to get a gun, he or she will, through whatever channels are available.
    We live in a culture that is, in many ways, violent on a daily basis. I say society needs to be re-educated in terms of what is acceptable when it comes to words and images in the media and in the arts (i.e., film and novels). But maybe I am naïve to think this would make a difference in the long run.

  6. Renee says:

    As a college student, I know that my peers spend an enormous amount of time on Facebook…not just checking their inboxes, but searching for friends and making connections. You’re right, Jon; social media is the way of the future, and if you want to reach a tech-savvy generation, you need to work with their media.
    I also want to mention the same thing here as I did on Crisisblogger. Students need to be aware of their involvement in their university’s crisis communication plan. It’s just as important for them to know what to do as it is for the police and administration. Should we come to class/campus? Are you going to contact us via email, radio, or on a website? Everyone should be clear on the plan, ESPECIALLY the ones you’re trying to keep safe.

  7. Bill Sledzik says:

    Jon,
    As an educator at a large state university (eerily similar to VT), I gotta disagree with your point about Facebook as a crisis communication tool. FB, like email, requires computer access, so it can’t reach students and staff who are in transit, and it can’t reach those out of reach of the wireless signal, or those who have their computers shut down. FB did prove valuable in the aftermath of the VT shootings, as a way for students and families to locate one another, and as a way to share their grief. But I don’t buy into it as a crisis comm tool.
    I agree that email isn’t the right tool here, as it just doesn’t break through as it used to. But it was really all that was available to VT on Monday. And for what it’s worth, students on our campus access FB 4-5 times daily (info I got from one of our IT geeks).
    If you want instant communication with students no matter where they may be, there’s only one sure way, and that’s the cell phone. Pretty much every kid has one. Expect every university, from this point forward, to collect these numbers. When emergencies arise, they’ll send a blast text message.
    That’ll break through.

  8. Jon Harmon says:

    Bill:
    Great points. A crisis communications plan has to be comprehensive and should be backed by the technology to automatically send it via all channels quickly. (All: If you don’t have that technology, as well as a robust crisis plan, let’s talk.)
    Going forward, text messaging will probably be the most important medium to alert students (or others) in a crisis and should include very simple instructions for what they are to immediately do, and then point them to the crisis webpage, Facebook community, etc. where they can get more detailed info.

  9. Bill Sledzik says:

    Right on point there, Jon. A newer colleague asked me what our procedures are should any type of confrontation flare up in the classroom. I couldn’t answer her, because no one’s ever told me. Confession: I don’t even have the number for campus police on my speed dial or in my phone book! Let’s start there, eh?

  10. Renee says:

    Is there a way to ensure that students’ phone numbers are going to be used only in a crisis? I certainly don’t want an alert at 8 am about the upcoming basketball game.
    In addition, there are still a large number (believe it or not) of students who don’t have text messaging. Hmm…I smell a partnership – a deal on text messaging for college students to encourage everyone to have it in case of a crisis. Wouldn’t be a bad idea…

  11. Jim S. says:

    I was offended when Diane Sawyer asked the president of Virginia Tech at 7 am the morning after the shootings if he would resign. At that time, they were still trying to identify the shooter, and even speculating that there might have been more than 1 shooter. The Virginia Tech officials did a great job in a tragic situation….and obviously had been up all night dealing with one of America’s most terrible events ever. I have visited VT a couple times and it is as great a school, and as secure, as any University in the country. It is not Diane Sawyer’s job to call for resignations…her job is to report the news. If I were the VT president, I would have said, “If you are so smart and insightful, Diane, where the hell were you yesterday morning?” Frankly, I think Diane should be the one to resign in this crisis, not the Virginia Tech officials.

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