2013 Conference

Lessons Learned from a Lockdown: Using Web and Social Media in a Crisis

Presenters: Kerri Hicks and Cindy Sabato

Track: Management and Professional Development (#mpd6)

padlock on old wooden doorsWinning a red stapler award at a HighEdWeb conference means presenters must do a reenactment of their award-winning session. In the case of Kerri Hicks and Cindy Sabato of University of Rhode Island, their presentation WAS a reenactment – a lively, engaging and background-music filled one at that. Their session, “Lessons Learned from a Lockdown: Using Web and Social Media in a Crisis” won ‘best of’ in the Management and Professional Development track, which meant a ‘RE-reenactment’.

Complete with glittery social media hats, Hicks and Sabato took attendees through the events of April 4, which began as a typical day, but turned into “the gun scare of 2013.” The officemates bantered back and forth about how to handle responding to a tweet from a prospective student—she’d tweeted, with usernames, her top choices for Colleges. The women were plotting their friendly-fire tweets…

And then…

Through social media, Hicks and Sabato learned that more than 300 students ran out of an academic building for fear of someone with a gun. Their presentation included a photo, linked from one of the tweets that showed a lecture hall floor littered with papers—sure signs of a hasty exit.

“There never was a gunman,” said Sabato, adding that there as some sort of misremembering, miscommunication, a mis… something.

Hurricane Sandy and a blizzard had introduced URI to social media and crisis communication, but the gunman-scare lockdown taught the pair—and other on campus—about a very different crisis and validated the importance of an integrated approach emergency messaging and monitoring.

Sabato explained that “your students will know about what’s happening on campus way before you,” and she cautioned attendees with this:  if your administration is thinking of social media as a place to post news, you’re missing its bigger value. This is important in this story because the tweet was discovered four minutes before campus police became aware of the alleged gun on campus. Twitter was “all a flutter” but there was no official word yet.

It took 24 minutes to send out an official announcement across mediums.

The talk on Twitter, however, helped Sabato, Hicks and others on their team ask questions. They knew what students were saying, what the rumors were as tweets were appearing “fast and furious.” And, they said, tweets fill the void when there are rumors, alluding to the fact that monitoring social media helps alleviate these assumptions.

Cindy reworked a philosophical statement from (the character) Ferris Bueller: social media moves pretty fast; if you don’t stop to look around at it once in a while, you might miss something.

As Hicks and Sabato recounted the events of the day, they shared these takeaways:


  • Old school emergency takes longer; in past, the first place we heard about something was from the news media, and there were layers of drafts and official approvals to work through before releasing to the media.
  • Traditional methods are still important, but they are no longer enough and no longer sufficient on their own; tools like Twitter and Facebook allow you to respond to valid questions in real time in ways that traditional method never can.
  • Social media allows for fast response to valid questions.
  • Social media allows for correction of misinformation or rumors.
  • Social media gives you clues to if the rest of old school methods are working – insights into the rest of your crisis response.
  • Community can police itself and allow for discussion that allowed for distraction. For example, the comments area of one Facebook post became a humans vs. zombies discussion—unrelated to the initial post, but a distraction from the events at hand.
  • Social media gives you the kudos you will never get from traditional methods – love. Shout outs. Etc.
  • Social media gives other people a forum to provide commentary on the event; things that we, as web and social media professional cannot do, to provide lighthearted, even comedic, moments that get you through.  (Jokes, etc. For example, one tweet read:  “I survived the nerf gun shooting of 2013.”)
  • Social media is no longer optional. The audience expects you to be there in a crisis. If you expect them to engage with you when there’s not a crisis, they expect you to be there when there is.
  • Social media is just one part of an overall, integrated approach to crisis. The team should include:   Leadership, social media, web and old school.
  • Physical proximity makes a difference. Crisis can overload the ‘technicals’ (as Hicks’ and Sabato’s office refer to them as). It allows instant communication. People talk faster than you type. Networks go down, batteries go dead.
  • Is your social media person on your crisis communications team? THEY SHOULD BE.
  • Your social media leader needs to craft a message that will lead people to read it – that message from the president you just wrote won’t work.
  • Hurry up! But don’t forget, you have to be right.
  • Emergency alert system needs to be configured properly and the process communicated clearly; otherwise, you will hear about it through social media. URI’s system sent texts first, then a call, then email; many had opted out of text so they didn’t get their notification in for about a half hour; Hicks and Sabato learned they should have made the process more clear because the delay undermined the credibility of their response–a tweet called the school out on this delay.
  • Create a simple, “light” emergency page. While communicating on social media is important, there needs to be a website to publish the messages leadership wants to see. It’s hard to plan for so much traffic, but as Hicks explained, “…in a time like this, people from all over the world wanted to see about ‘a shooting on campus.’”
  • In what Hicks hopes is the golden nugget, she suggested that whoever handles the web and social media in an emergency keep a “magic envelope – locked and hidden” that contains an emergency plan for the homepage and give a few key people have access to it in a don’t-open-this-until-Christmas fashion.

The final slide summed it all up like this:

  • Social media – not optional.
  • Proximity. Critical.
  • Accurate or timely? Why choose?
  • Technical chops on hand? Absolutely.
  • Cross-training and super-secret envelope. Required.

Oh. And remember how the day started? Hicks and Sabato tied up their presentation in a bow at end. That tweet? The prospective student went to another school—but probably not because of the situation on campus that April day.

“In the end it was a really great drill… and people were speculating it was a drill, and in the end it was. No one was hurt, nothing happened that was unrecoverable, and we learned a lot in the process,” said Sabato.
Photo Credit: Mexicanwave via Compfight cc

Share this:

By Donna Talarico

Donna Talarico, a Red-Stapler-winning HighEdWeb presenter and volunteer editor for Link, is an independent writer and content strategist. She is the marketing columnist for Wiley's Recruiting and Retaining Adult Learners, and her work has also been published in CASE Currents, The Guardian Higher Education Network, and elsewhere. From 2010 to 2015, she told the Elizabethtown College story as part of an award-winning marketing and communications team. Always a storyteller, before higher ed she worked in print and broadcast media, and for a leading eCommerce company. She is the founder and publisher of Hippocampus Magazine, a bimonthly creative nonfiction journal and small press. She loves road trips, board games, greasy spoon diners, and words.