Managing a crisis with social media and anonymous communication

12/18/2013
Safety
T. Gregory Bender

Thanks to the proliferation of handheld smart devices and social media such as Facebook and Twitter, we can all share and distribute information instantly and succinctly. The Dec. 8, 2011 shooting on the Virginia Tech campus, the recent Oct. 21, 2013 Nevada Sparks Elementary School shooting, and other recent events like last year’s Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, underscore how important it is for information to go out to the public with accurate depictions and instructions from school officials to manage a crisis effectively.

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The Nevada shooting comes almost a year after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. The Nevada event occurred at 7:15 a.m. before most parents were even at work or the official start of school. The Nevada shooting required rapid delivery of communications and social media posts by school officials to parents and staff at an unexpected early hour. Gun violence in or around schools has become a national debate concerning school and student safety and the need to revise school safety and crisis communications plans is increasing.

Anonymous Communications Before a Crisis

The U.S. Department of Education and Secret Service states that for over 81 percent of violent acts or planned events that occur, someone knew about it ahead of time. From most accounts, bullying and/or cyber bullying continue to be drivers in school shootings or violent events on and off campus. Classmates bullied the Sparks Elementary student who brought his parents’ handgun to school and carried out the shooting in the Nevada Sparks Elementary School, as reported by his classmates following the event. Anonymous alerts or tips by students to school officials can be a helpful deterrent to stopping a violent event before it happens, in addition to students monitoring other social media posts by other students and placing anonymous reports directly to school officials.

Getting the Word Out

Some campuses use a variety of means to get the word out including but not limited to email, text-to-cell, voice messaging to phones, electronic display boards, campus loud speakers, audible alarms or LCD displays on school campuses to transmit their messages out to students, parents and staff. In order to be in full control of a crisis, school officials need to manage Social Media outlets in order to be in full control of events and limit rumors, poor or misstated information that may jeopardize student safety.

News of the Nevada Sparks Elementary School shooting spread across news outlets; students texted their parents, outside individuals posted information to social media. However the need for quick delivery of succinct messaging and social media posts at an early hour was a challenge for school officials. Depictions that came from the news were scattered as they were trying to piece together the event as it quickly unfolded as school officials scrambled to manage the crisis.

Within minutes of the Virginia Tech shooting of a campus police officer, Virginia Tech officials sent out alerts via email and text-to-cell messaging, electronic boards in classrooms, and audible alarms on the campus, yet officials were not in full control of the information that spread through social media postings by students. While information about the shooting spread quickly through these social media sites not all the information was accurate nor did the photos posted by students accurately depict the event. This unverified information was then used by news media, further complicating efforts by campus officials to manage the event. Tragically, this was not the first crisis for Virginia Tech officials, but it serves as a reminder for school officials to have up-to-date crisis communications tools and procedures available with strong social media controls in place using their voice.

Use of Social Media in the U.S.

Pew Research states that as of May 2013, 72 percent of online adults use social networking sites, and 18 percent use Twitter. Pew Research also states that 67 percent of online adults say they use Facebook. In May 2013, 74 percent of women were users of social networking sites, compared with 62 percent of men. These findings clearly support the idea that schools and universities should allocate significant resources to maintain a social media presence as part of an emergency-messaging plan.

During an emergency or school shooting, school officials who use social media in conjunction with voice, text, and email emergency messaging systems and sound security measures help to ensure the safety of school campus students and personnel.

Sources for News

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data from 2010, 58 percent of households had two working parents with children. Research also states that the demographic trends in smartphone usage are 81 percent of 25-34 year olds and 69 percent of 35-44 year olds own a smartphone. It’s likely that these parents rely on their smartphones, tablets and computers for information about what is going on in their community — including their children’s schools. With 72 percent of adults using social media, it is understood that schools should establish a credible social media presence as part of their emergency response plan and should designate and train key personnel to distribute accurate information as situations unfold.

Social media is a social gathering of contacts, broadening your online reach to other parents/guardians or family members when recipients share your emergency message content during a crisis. Christopher P. Clouet, former superintendent of schools for the City of White Plains, New York said, “I first began using social media in 2009. The City of White Plains Schools has 7,500 students with many parents traveling to New York City. Social Media is a great tool for connecting with parents who are hard to reach during the work day in addition to sending email, text/cell and voice messages.”

Facebook. Create a Facebook page for your district or university. Determine what kinds of information you want to include and how often it should be updated. Designate an administrator of your page; all content will come to the Facebook administrator for review before it is posted. The page administrator can be you, a fellow administrator, a teacher, a Public Relations firm or even a college student who is studying marketing and social media. Regardless, a Facebook page administrator should approve all content before it is posted. Assign backup personnel for crisis communications with Facebook.

Twitter. Create a Twitter account and designate a community manager to write the tweets and monitor questions and responses. If more than one person will be writing tweets, ensure that they have a consistent voice before posting them. The best way to maintain a consistent voice is to always avoid the first person “I” and stick to the first person plural (we, us, our). Remember that you only have 140 characters, so the tweets must be concise: provide only vital information in your tweets, especially during a crisis.

Have All Communications Tools and Preventive Measures in Place

Today, traditional media such as TV, radio and print are not enough to effectively manage communications in a crisis. A solid emergency response and communications plan needs to involve traditional media, social media, your website, outbound voice/email/text and preventive measures. Preventive measures include a way for students to place anonymous alerts/tips to school officials before an event happens, averting a tragic event.

Schools nationwide are honing their emergency response and communications plans; school officials must designate key personnel and backup personnel to send messages via all avenues to ensure accurate delivery of information. A superintendent or president of a college may be tasked with informing the media; a few key people like the communications director, business official, assistant superintendent or technology director may be the point people for managing social media posts, district/campus alert system, and your website.

Whatever systems, tools and resources you have available, publishing and distributing accurate information in a hurry requires assigning and training key personnel to manage the accurate delivery of information. A crisis unfolds at a rapid pace so rehearsing your response to an event using new and existing tools are keys to your success. Although it may seem that integrating more technology is time consuming and requires management resources, these new tools are accessible from any Internet-connected device empowering you to quickly manage a crisis when time is short and the delivery of accurate information may be key to saving lives.

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