Monday August 29 was the first day of classes at the University of Montana campus in Missoula, Montana. The campus was teeming with 15,000-plus students. At around 6:00 p.m. that night, there was a shooting on campus. The university has an emergency text message system, but no message was sent. Instead, the school sent out a news item to campus "electronic message boards" asking people to "stay away from the parking lot" where the shooting occurred, and also sent an email to faculty and students. At 10:30 that evening, the following generic message was posted on Facebook in the president's name. No subsequent responses from the university were posted on Facebook following the shooting.
Not surprisingly, the incident made national news. When you combine the words "campus" and "shooting" together, word gets around and people get concerned. Especially parents.
By the morning, the school's Facebook page included several negative messages from parents and students wanting to know why the text message system wasn't used.
In a statement to the local paper, university officials said they decided not to invoke the emergency text message system because there was no threat to staff and students. UM Executive VP Jim Foley said he was pleased with the way the university handled the shooting. I wonder if VP Foley read the comments on the school's Facebook page?
The incomplete response of the university caused widespread concern among students and parents of students, and highlights some important best practices that were ignored by the school.
1. Consider the emotional impact of the incident in the crisis communications plan. There are certain types of incidents that can incite panic whether there is immediate physical danger or not. As I said earlier, whenever the words "campus" and "shooting" are combined, it is serious, whether it is a self-inflicted accident or a shooter with potential mass harm in mind. The responses on the part of the university are certainly different to each, but in the minds of some students and parents, the words, "there has been a shooting on campus" conjure visions of fear and panic. Be careful not to judge the threat of a crisis only from the operations point of the organization. Stakeholders may have different priorities and needs. Understand that and respond accordingly.
2. Consider the context and venue of public messages in a crisis. A message can be specific without being detailed. News services tend to pump out generic, non-specific messages for fear of attaching emotion, or just trying to get to the point. So often we forget that different message channels carry different cultures. A recent piece on crisis communications on Meet Content refers to this as the "push or pull" of each channel. Often, news-type messages are not the best for social media in a crisis. What works on an organization's news site may need a different tone on Facebook. Releasing a generic, unfeeling news message on Facebook in this incident might have been a good beginning, but the absence of any follow-up messages is a failure. As Amber Naslund and Jay Baer addressed in the Now Revolution, communicate about the crisis in the channels where it first began. You can't light a fire on Facebook or Twitter and then only post important follow-up information on your website. You need to stay present and put the fire out where you started it. Emotion and hearsay can escalate quickly on social media. You better stick around and monitor the conversation.
3. Social media's strength in crisis is its ability to ease public concern quickly and provide information in real-time. Use it well. There is no information channel that has the ability to provide widespread information in a crisis as effectively or as quickly as social media. It is immediate, and people are turning to it in bigger numbers than ever as the first source in crisis. However, you can't just "spew-and-go" on social media, leaving people to their imaginations. Your crisis communications plan should include a monitored presence that addresses legitimate public concerns during a crisis through the means of timely messages. Organizations that embrace this role of information provider during a crisis will gain public respect. Organizations that don't use social well in crisis run the risk of reputation stumble.
Does your crisis communications plan include an intelligent use of social media? Your thoughts are welcome in the comments.