Ever since Columbine, Virginia Tech, and most recently Newtown, the mention of a shooting on a school campus draws immediate attention. However, it’s possible to create a larger panic and ensuing crisis by activating a template response to university shootings that do not pose a threat to the campus community.
Last week produced two shooting incidents on college campuses: the University of Arkansas and Florida Atlantic University. One involved an accidental self-inflicted wound at a college radio station and one involved campus police wounding a man that had threatened them with a knife on the roof of a campus building. Both incidents drew national press and both schools used social media to communicate the incident. Neither event produced a lockdown, and each incident was treated specifically as a non-threatening situation. Let’s take a look at the two responses.
Florida Atlantic University
Florida Atlantic sent two mass text alerts to its data base after the shooting. The first said there had been an incident at the FAU research park and no action was required. The second read, “The University would like to remind members of its community to be aware of their surroundings and to always follow safe practices. On an individual basis, please exercise appropriate caution carrying out activities both on and off campus.”
There was criticism from some students on the school’s Facebook page that the alerts were sent out too late. The police were originally called to the incident at 10:00 a.m. and the first text alert did not go out for over an hour. Some students passed the shooting site and saw the ambulance before they received an alert. Others saw the incident in a news article before they received the text alert. It’s a good reminder that an immediate assessment of the situation’s risk level must be made and communications sent out right away based on that assessment, even if the incident is not a threat.
The school’s website home page had no report or link to news of the incident, something that might be disconcerting to a parent or relative looking for information if they had seen a news article on the incident (screen shot taken at 2:00 p.m. EST)
Often, schools don’t like to report such incidents on their websites fearing that their presence draws more unwanted attention or will blow the incident out of proportion. However, the opposite is true. A lack of critical information can ensue a quick panic. At the least, there should be a link to a news item, if only to calm the fears of those looking for information (see report on Arkansas below).
The FAU Facebook page had a post announcing the incident and assuring people that it was not a threat and was under control. Understandably, the post turned into a rant of sorts on many different subjects from gun control to homelessness.
FAU did not return my request for information, but I am going to assume that they monitored the Facebook post to make sure there was no misinformation or questions that needed to be answered. Wisely, they did not enter the conversation, but just played host to a discussion by others. Sometimes organizations make a mistake of thinking that regular Facebook protocol prevails in an incident of this type and insist on being a part of the conversation. That is not necessary in an emergency or negative event. It is necessary to monitor the conversation.
FAU also used their Twitter feed to announce the incident and assure readers there was no action to be taken. This message is a testament to the fact that all the important information can be delivered in less than 140 characters:
The University of Arkansas
The University of Arkansas did not send out a text alert about their campus incident. The event was an accidental discharge of a handgun by a student employee at a campus radio station. The student had the gun in a backpack and was removing it to show a friend.
UA Associate Vice Chancellor John Diamond said, “Given the situation, location, and the condition of the injured student, the university did not believe we needed to issue a campuswide RazAlert –our campus emergency notification system. At the time we learned about the incident, it was over and the situation did not pose a possible threat to the community. We quickly posted a notice of what happened on our web page and on our social media channels. We also worked with our campus radio station to communicate what happened through its own website and social media channels.”
Any concerned visitor to the UA website would have seen a link to the news event on the home page:
The release was an informative, straightforward account of the incident, the location, and an assurance that there was no threat:
Key points in this release: social share icons, email share icon, specific information (time, place, etc), report and response times, condition of the wounded student, and university contact information.
Every incident has some lessons and Diamond said they already have plans to address a piece of their protocol because of the incident.
“The one part of our emergency response plan that did not get implemented was an e-mail to students and employees notifying them of what had happened and its accidental nature. The intent of that message would be to mitigate the possibility of misinformation being spread,” he said. “We did not take that step, in part because two individuals involved in the communication process—our news media manager and UAPD’s public information officer—were both out of town at the time and temporarily unavailable. Each of them would have made sure we took that step.
“While we were prepared to roll out our emergency communication plan, that one element—designed to brief the community and reassure folks that there was no danger—didn’t kick in. As a result, we are modifying our protocol for this.”
As you plan for emergency response in your crisis communications plan, be sure and consider the following:
1. The emotional impact of the incident
There are certain types of incidents that can incite panic whether there is immediate physical danger or not. In the fall of 2012, one university posted this message on its electronic bulletin boards around campus as its initial announcement of an emergency: “There has been a shooting on campus.” It was followed with a sentence asking students to stay away from a certain area on campus. On the university Facebook page, students had to read down four sentences before seeing the words, “There is currently no threat to the campus community.”
This communication was a failure on the part of the university because its initial communication to its community created confusion and panic. The student anger that followed on the institution’s Facebook page was justified. Carefully consider each incident and craft a message that instructs people about the danger level of the incident up front. Be quick but don’t hurry. An emergency alert is an immediate call to action—make sure the nature of the call is evident right away. Should they stay put, seek shelter, evacuate, stay tuned, or is there no danger? Your message has the power to created panic or calm.
2. Social media’s strength in crisis is its ability to ease public concern quickly and provide information in real-time. Use it well.
There is no information channel that has the ability to provide widespread information in a crisis as effectively or as quickly as social media. It is immediate, and people are turning to it in bigger numbers than ever as the first source in crisis. However, you must write your messages thoughtfully. Use a template to make sure you are including all the necessary information and contact points. Communicate quickly and thoroughly. Remember, people are relying on you to keep them secure and informed.
Also, don’t forget to monitor your social media during a crisis. You will need to keep watch for misinformation and legitimate questions. Make sure you have an emergency phone number set up or an email system where people can get answers to legitimate questions. Organizations that embrace this role of information provider during a crisis will gain public respect. Organizations that don’t use social well in crisis run the risk of a reputation stumble, or worse, may threaten public safety.
Both Florida Atlantic and the University of Arkansas should be commended for their responses. Their events can be your wake-up call. Are you ready for an emergency event on campus? Do you have a protocol that addresses danger levels and appropriate responses for each?