Friday Five: Lessons from a crisis

Post updated @8:15 a.m. CDT Monday, May 16, to include a video clip from KSDK Channel 5 in St. Louis about our campus’s use of social media during last Thursday’s lockdown.

Post updated @ 8:40 a.m. CDT Friday, May 13, to include additional links and information, especially pertaining to social media (lesson No. 3, below). – AC

This has been an extraordinary week for our campus. It began Sunday with news that four of our international students were killed and a fifth seriously injured in a car crash. This tragedy has affected our campus’s large Indian student community as well as the broader campus community.

Then yesterday (Thursday), a gunman drove onto campus while being pursued by police, jumped out of his car and entered one of our buildings. He passed through the building and fled on foot, but the incident led to a four-hour lockdown of campus.

Our department sprang into action at 8:45 a.m. when I got the call from our police chief to issue a mass notification. As I prepared that notice, police sounded our campus emergency whistle, and I called other staff together to execute an emergency plan. We decided right then to switch our website to emergency mode, flipping it to our In Case of Emergency website. No pictures of smiling students (well, except for the standard footer, but it’s minimal). In its place was a site that was constantly updated throughout the day.

The story unfolded on our campus website in blog format. Here’s how it looked by the end of the day.

S&T-Gateway-5-12-11

At the same time, we used social media, posting to both our Facebook and Twitter accounts, and updated the campus with email notifications that were also posted to the website. Here’s one account of how we used social media, and Twitter in particular, to cover the story as it unfolded.

So, what did I learn from this crisis? Here are five immediate takeaways:

1. Awesome people pull together. I am blessed to work with an outstanding group of professionals who, during situations like this, pull together quickly and exhibit amazing leadership. Our communications staff sprang into action and, thanks to previous training and effort, knew specific roles. But even those who didn’t have specific roles quickly connected the dots. While I was in the campus police department, monitoring the situation, I had full confidence that our staff members were pulling together for the common cause of communicating internally and externally. Even those who don’t always work in the crisis communications area were chipping in. A graphic designer was updating a campus map to show parking for a planned press conference.

2. Communicate early and often. The mass notification system worked very well, but follow-up communication throughout the day was also critical, especially as the campus remained in lockdown mode even when the threat had apparently dissipated. We used all the tools at our disposal to do so. Which leads to the third point.

3. Social media is your friend during times of crisis. Yes, people were using Facebook and Twitter to get their own messages out while we were scrambling to do the same, and there was some definite noise and rumor floating around, but having an established presence both on Facebook and Twitter helped immensely.

One network affiliate in St. Louis talked on-air about how they were using our university Twitter feed to get updates.

http://c.brightcove.com/services/viewer/federated_f9?isVid=1

On our Facebook site, we received an outpouring of support for our communications efforts. Here are some sample posts:

Our son was on campus – we’re so glad that it is over.

We are so glad the campus emergency system is working well. Good job on the alert. Our son is staying put & they’re listening to the police scanner.

The school did an amazing job with the lock-down & alert system. Job well done & we’re relieved it is over.

Glad my daughter was home, but I really appreciated the steady communication and conservative approach to keeping the campus safe. Hopefully this will be the last time there is ever anything besides nerf guns on campus!!!!

good that everyone is safe… The school did a good job to keep all its students notified

So glad everyone is ok. Thank you for your swift actions and notifications to the students. Mom of current student

well done folks, thanks for the swift action by the University authorities, it is a great relief that lock out now lifted and the suspect has been apprehended, wonderful Rolla police, great university, thank you every one who courageously worked and stayed indoor students too.

And thank you Missouri S&T for being so quick to take action and protect the students!

Thank you Jesus. My son is a student there. Although he isn’t there right now. I was on pens and neddles. Fanstatic job. Other police and law enforcement should take note. Missouri Finest at it’s best. Job well done.

It is very reassuring as a parent of a student that goes to S&T to see the action that is taken to keep the students safe. My son is currently home for the summer but at least I know that if he had been at school his safety would have been high priority.

Also, we use our news site as a social media forum of sorts. All of our stories are in blog format, allowing for comments. The news release we posted earlier in the week about the death of four students in that car crash has resulted in 60 comments, most of which express condolences and support.

4. Pushing content is OK. I know some people would disagree with me about pushing RSS feeds to Twitter. But during times of crisis, I’m glad we have our Twitter feed set up to push news releases out. We don’t rely solely on RSS, of course. We also provided human updates as needed. But when push came to shove, we didn’t turn off the push.

5. Say thank you. There are a lot of people who work hard behind the scenes during an emergency situation. Don’t forget to say thanks to your hard-working communications staff as well as others who are involved in the event, such as the campus police, the IT support, and others.

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Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

11 thoughts on “Friday Five: Lessons from a crisis”

  1. Good job, Andrew. Stressful times can be helped by good people and good planning. So nice to have a team that pulls together. One mandatory takeaway: every body should have an alternate website home page template ready to go for an emergency. Nothing like tyring to track down people to get it put together on the spur of the moment with no pre-planning.

  2. As a community member, I also appreciated the timely and accurate information, even after the threat had left the campus vicinity. Great job to you and your team yesterday!

  3. Chris – Having an alternate website is critical. We used our In Case of Emergency site (ice.mst.edu) as the default website.

    Nathan – Glad to hear our updates were helpful to the community as well. What a crazy day, eh? Let’s not do it again for a looooong time, if ever.

  4. It is something that we all hope never happens on a campus. But it is always better to be prepared in case. Planning like that can save headaches and hopefully keep people safe. Kudos to you and your team for the foresight to have the emergency site planned out and executed smoothly. From the comment above it sounds like it really helped out.

  5. As thinks were unfolding last week. I marveled at out coordinated and efficient your response was. I contact our director of communications just to show him how it should be done.

    With all the high praise – and it is truly deserved – Is there anything that you would do different?

  6. George – Thanks for the kudos. It was truly a team effort. I’m very fortunate to work with some dedicated, talented folks here at Missouri S&T. As for what I would do differently? A couple of things come to mind:

    * Provide a bit more context to the term “lockdown” in the earliest messages — i.e., “If you are on campus, lock the doors to your office or lab, lights out, stay down. If you are off campus, stay away.”

    * Contact IT sooner for assistance in opening up more phone lines. Our phone lines were slammed immediately – as was the police dispatch and our public radio station, all with outside media wanting info.

    I’m sure there’s more. We’re still reviewing. Our campus police chief and I have done a couple of post mortems with campus higher ups and our crisis communications team, but I haven’t yet had a chance to get our full communications staff together to do our own debriefing. That happens next Tuesday.

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