by Jeff Puklin, Connecticut College
In an emergency such as Hurricane Sandy, the role of a college’s communications team is to provide timely information to students, parents, faculty, staff and alumni to ensure emergency and hurricane preparedness. As the world increasingly turns to social media for information, we see a growing need to integrate social media into these hurricane preparedness and emergency communications efforts.
These are some of the things that worked for us during Hurricane Sandy as well as a few reasons why we think you should use social media as a piece of your crisis communication strategy.
1) PERSON-TO-PERSON COMMUNICATION
At Connecticut College, we use Twitter as our main engine for person-to-person communication. We’ve developed a social media ecosystem on campus centered around an official campus handle, @ConnCollegeLive. This Twitter handle serves as a hub of information about events, campus announcements and other topics of relevance to students and the broader campus community. On @ConnCollegeLive, we retweet pictures, event notices from student organizations and general commentary on campus life. Think of it as an online forum for campus chatter.
Having the existing @ConnCollegeLive ecosystem allowed us to share storm updates from our website directly with staff, faculty and students, and equally as important, respond directly to their questions, concerns and observations. Students in particular asked many simple but important questions: Would the athletic center and library be open during the storm? Which dining halls were open? What should they do if the power goes out? Who should they contact if their key cards stopped working? By working closely with the College’s emergency management team, we were often able to respond within minutes.
At the same time, we used our college’s public-facing Twitter account, @ConnCollege, to reach those not on campus – alumni, parents and friends – and update them on how we were weathering the storm. Additionally, we talked to all audiences through our Facebook page. Social media helped keep all of these audiences in the loop during a stressful time, and gave them the ability to provide feedback and share concerns.
Did your college change early admissions deadlines because of Hurricane Sandy? Our list of affected dates.
2) NO POWER? NO PROBLEM
Our campus was fortunate enough to retain power throughout the duration of the hurricane, but many in our community who were off campus were not so fortunate, including staff, faculty, parents and alumni. Days after the storm, many of the surrounding towns are still without power and may continue to be in the dark for a number of days.
With many people losing access to television and radio, smart phone users and even some flip phone users were able to continue sharing and receiving information through our social media channels. As long as you had a battery charge, you could read our messages on Twitter and Facebook.
3) REAL TIME COMMUNICATION
Social media provides a level of immediacy that most forms of communication do not. Twitter and Facebook can be pushed to a mobile device as an alert, sent instantly to the pocket, coffee table or desk of your audience.
While web-based communications continue to play an important role, people must seek out the message. With Twitter and Facebook, we can push the urgent messages that live on our website and give them a nudge into the social world.
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4) MAKE IT A SHARED EXPERIENCE
Rather than solely relying on messages created by the college’s communications team, social media allowed us to bring information together from a variety of different sources, both on campus and off. During the storm, we retweeted information from local news outlets, shared library closing updates from the College’s Library Facebook page and posted photos taken by alumni and students.
Creating a shared, highly personal experience is central to the fabric of Connecticut College. We’re a small school that values being a close-knit community. While the hurricane made it unsafe for the community to congregate in one place during the storm—since we encouraged students to stay in the dorms and many faculty and staff were taking care of their families—our social media channels acted as a virtual meeting spot, inviting people to share their own experiences and hear from others.
5) JUST ONE PIECE OF THE PUZZLE
As important as social media was during Hurricane Sandy, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the larger crisis communication plan that was the foundation of our social media efforts. At Connecticut College, we used every available channel, to the point of redundancy, to ensure that our message got out to the college community. We will continue to see uses for voice recordings, website updates and email in future emergency communication. Tools like Twitter and Facebook add additional options to our arsenal, helping us share vital messages as far and as quickly as possible.
Jeff Puklin (@JeffPuklin) is the new media producer at Connecticut College in New London, Conn. He graduated from Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., in May 2011 with a degree in Media & Communication.