Crisis Communications on the Web #heweb11

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Photo by Dunechaser, Flickr.

No one wants to have to experience a crisis and communicate about it on the Web. But these days it’s essential that you have a plan to do when a tragedy does strike.

That’s the message Nyleva Corley and Chris Latham from the University of Texas shared during a session at HighEdWeb 11 in Austin.

On Sept. 28, 2010  UT experienced such a tragedy when a 19 year-old sophomore brought an AK-47 on to campus. The student, Colton Tooley, exited a bus and started firing shots into the ground and made his way to the largest library on campus. Eventually he took his own life by turning the gun on himself. Fortunately, no one else was injured.

There was about a 10 minute window of real danger on campus, Latham said, but police were unsure if there was a second shooter and that added to the chaos on campus.

Given that confusion, there was a critical need for UT get information out on the web, so those both on campus and off campus could know what was going on, Corley said.

“Parents were going to want to know whether their students were safe. We had to act and we had to act fast,” she said.

Texas benefited because they had planned for a crisis. Corley and Latham said schools need to imagine what can go wrong on campus, from a shooter, to a hurricane or a bad snow storm. Schools also need to think about how they will communicate with their audiences. At UT communications ranged from alerts on the Web and social media to siren and loudspeakers to phone messages to messages displayed on flat panel TVs in campus buildings.

What’s your plan?

Corley and Latham encouraged attendees to think about their plans. Have defined roles, from the public information officer handling media in the field to people back in the office updating the web or Facebook.

“We had roles in place and we were empowered by supervisors to act,” Corley said.

Central to that idea is that you build in redundancies into your plan, Latham said. Share your credentials so that multiple people can update your social media and web sites.

“On a day filled with challenges that’s going to be hard to manage,” by yourself Corley said.

Don’t Stop

Another key was not slowing down. Corley and Latham said they worked hard to seek out new information on the shootings, even going out to listen to loudspeakers to see if the campus police were broadcasting news on the incident. That’s because any gap in communication with the outside world can cause your audience to worry about what is actually going on.

“Keep communicating so people understand,” Latham said, “If 30 minutes pass and there’s no message, people might think its safe and start going outside.”

Another lesson was keeping your communication simple. Sometimes terms such as “lockdown” and “shelter in place” don’t resonate with broader audiences. After their crisis, UT worked to educate the community about such terms to help reduce confusion.

While your crisis might last hours or days, there’s also ongoing communications that need to be carried out. Think about items like how you might communicate news about a vigil or how you will let students and staff know what to do about missed classes or work time.

And while you may not want to think about such a crisis, you need to practice so you can be prepared, Corley and Latham said. Because when a crisis does strike, you can’t let your audiences down.

You can view more about UT’s response at