Rutgers Gets an “A” in Hurricane Sandy Crisis Communications

UPDATE: I received an email from a student in the Rutgers community expressing some concerns on specific failures of the university during the recent hurricane. Questions about how to effectively communicate with everyone and answer urgent concerns are valid. The emailer pointed out that Rutgers was not answering questions or concerns on Facebook or other social media during the crisis–just broadcasting. While I agree that this is a huge concern, this emergency obviously presented massive demands–all of which were not able to be met. I encourage students, faculty, and staff who have concerns about how the crisis was managed by the university to email their concerns to the school. The only way to get better at handling an emergency is to evaluate how you did after the fact and implement changes to your crisis protocol. I still believe that Rutgers did an excellent job disseminating information across as many channels as they could.  Crisis is never easy, and never what you expected. Feedback will probably be welcome.

What do you do when an epic storm descends on your region and you have 58,000+ students spread over three campuses that are 88 miles apart?  How do you begin to handle the logistics of emergency communications? Just ask Rutgers. During Hurricane Sandy, the Rutgers communications channels efficiently kept all their campuses updated and hooked together with social media and their main website. Let’s take a look at how the communication channels were used during the storm and post-storm.

The Main Hub: the website

The Rutgers website homepage sported a yellow banner throughout the emergency directing people to information on each of their three campuses:

One click on a campus site name took the viewer to a page filled with links and information on the weather, classes, campus closings, emergency protocol, and everything in between. There was a live blog with updates in chronological order with information on dining halls, transportation, class schedules, residence halls, power/water advisories, and a quick blurb on the other two campuses. The screenshot below is from the New Brunswick site. The blog is circled in red and other important related links are circled in blue. Also notice the weather update circled in green. Rutgers did a good job of making Hurricane Sandy crisis communications alerts visible on their home page.


The Secondary Channels: social media

Rutgers used their vast social media stable to give more real-time and audience-specific information during the crisis. Their Facebook page, which has over 21,000 likes, had timely updates:

Other Rutgers Facebook pages also carried information on the storm to their audiences. Below is a screenshot of the Rutgers Student Life page:

The school hosts several Twitter feeds, many of which were disseminating hurricane information during the storm. The main feed kept people informed on major pieces of information during the crisis.  Even though Twitter followers tend to share more than Facebook users, remember their content usually goes out to a much smaller audience. Up until the storm, the main Twitter feed averaged one to two posts a day with a decent sized audience of 12,000 followers. In addition to using Twitter to push information out, it is an effective channel for monitoring an emergency as well. Crisis managers can use it to keep an eye on real-time news in a crisis.


Rutgers also has an informational Twitter feed (@ruinfo) that hosts a variety of sources surrounding the Rutgers community. This feed was actively promoting information from the many campus Twitter channels.

The Chancellor also hosted a live blog during the storm as well:


The Final Analysis: anything missing?

A couple strategic points kept Rutgers from getting an A+. First, there is a lack of links back to the main website in their social media posts. Since the main website is the hub of all information—the only place where all the information resides—there is a need to direct people to that main hub. Employing a URL shortener would have brought their URL to 12 characters. Some Facebook posts had specific links, some did not. It’s important to tag every social media post with a URL of some sort in an emergency.  The other issue was the lack of social media promotion on the website during the emergency. It might have been wise to list the feeds of the most active channels on the separate emergency pages for each campus, or right on the yellow banner on the home page. The social media icon links are not readily visible on the home page.

Don’t forget mobile. When power is interrupted, it’s the only access point available. Schools that don’t design for mobile need to make sure their social media channels are populated with links and important information.

Also, important contact information should be up front. The campus announced their main information protocol at the bottom of the live blog. It was the only place I could find the information.

 When announcements are made, campus status information will also be available through:

·         RU-info Channel on RU-tv 3

·         RU-info Call Center at 732-445-INFO (4636)

·         Texting “Rutgers” to 66746

 It’s obvious by the way Rutgers handled the emergency that they had a plan. Hats off to the New Jersey university for keeping their community in the know during the emergency. Have you seen any other examples of how schools in the east handled communications during the storm?

  • cksyme

    I appreciate your comment. I have received emails from people (staff, students) from Rutgers, and just about everyone is disappointed with the way things went there. Most of the comments I got from people were related to the actual operations of the emergency system–something which I did not rate because that was not the intention of the piece. I spoke only to the digital communications pieces, not how the university handled the implementation of their emergency management system. When I looked at how other schools in the affected area were using their communications channels, Rutgers rated well. That doesn’t downplay the tragedy and hardship of the people that were affected by the storm, or assume the school didn’t make any mistakes. As digital communications went, Rutgers had all the right pieces in place. It’s too bad that feedback isn’t welcomed. It would be a valuable asset to the school.

  • Another RU Employee

    Frankly, Chris, it’s incredibly irresponsible for you to give the university an “A” for the debacle that happened last week. Have you spoken with the students who were affected by Rutgers’ decision making? Or the personnel who were told to come into New Brunswick in the midst of a state of emergency, only to be ordered to turn around and leave? If not, I strongly suggest you do so. Otherwise you’re doing a terrible disservice to all of us were affected by Rutgers’ mishandling of this matter.

    As for your comment above that “feedback will probably be welcome.” Clearly you don’t Rutgers and how this institution works. Feedback is rarely welcome here.

  • Pingback: Communications Lessons from Hurricane Sandy | NTCA PRNetworkings()

  • cksyme

    Obviously, the practical application of what Rutgers did had quirks. It is impossible to cover every base in a disaster of that magnitude, but I sure appreciate the perspective of someone who was there in the midst of it all. I hope that people like you are contacting the proper administration people with suggestions so that they can do better if, God forbid, there would ever be another need. Thanks for checking in and offering us all a firsthand look.

  • A Rutgers-New Brunswick Employee

    I would give Rutgers nothing higher than a C. Their Facebook posts and website updates were anything but timely. Decisions were made at the last minute, or after the fact.

    For the most part, website updates only came once a day, usually around 5pm. Monday classes weren’t cancelled until Sunday, too late for most students to get home before the storm.
    The Monday after the storm hit, when NJ and the City of New Brunswick were in a State of Emergency, Rutgers declared that office were open, thus forcing staff to decide between venturing onto dangerous roads or burning a vacation day. They didn’t realize their error until noon (after union members inundated the president with phone calls).

    When they announced that offices were closed on Tuesday and Wednesday and classes were cancelled the rest of the week, the announcement came with a four-paragraph preamble before stating that classes were cancelled, and another paragraph before announcing that offices were closed.

    The Rutgers FB page had few updates, and lots of people asking questions. Parents had to use precious cell-phone power scouring multiple FB pages (Rutgers U, Rutgers Parents Association, Rutgers Resident Knights, etc.) to cobble together information.

    Granted, these were–and still are for many–trying times, but Rutgers hardly deserves an A for its efforts.