The Evolution of Crisis Communications in the Social Media Age
Establishing your enterprise as a trusted source of information during an emergency now demands the savvy use of social media.
As emergency managers and first responders, we always worry about having the right crystal ball in our hand when a situation arises. In the past, when there was an emergency, we could respond and do a thorough investigation and control the messages that grew out of the event on the responding unit’s timeline.
The world has changed with the development of the Internet, smartphones, and a plethora of social media platforms (e.g., Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, YikYak, etc.). Today most people have a smartphone with a camera; most have access to social media and the Internet. Before police, fire or EMS can respond to an event, the social media is blowing up with reports and pictures, feeding the owner’s personal perspective of the incident to his/her followers and every traditional media outlet the city, state, nation and even world. The dilemma is to determine how emergency managers and first responders cope with the new, real-time world of communications.
The first step to understand the problem and get your arms around the situation is to ensure that all responders understand that everyone is a reporter when they have a smartphone. Every action will be recorded. Every comment by a first responder will live for eternity in cyberspace. Sloppy actions and off-the-cuff responses will be the headlines or the lead story on the 10 o’clock news. We have a responsibility to train our first responders to be aware and understand that every action, every word, in every routine day has the potential for becoming the next viral video damaging their reputations, as well as that of their department and institution. They must be professional and be prepared to live with all decisions made regardless how chaotic the situation presents. Before we have to respond to an emergency, we need to plan our communications. I will discuss our communications from a university perspective, but the tenets apply to other institutions or agencies.
At The University of Texas Austin (UT Austin), we have 53,000 students, 17,000 staff and faculty, and thousands of visitors daily. As a university, we are required to communicate with the campus to satisfy the requirements of applicable Federal and State laws (e.g., Clery Act ). Most institutions of higher education have developed multiple means of communicating with their campus communities. There is always a struggle between the speed of notification and the amount of detailed information to be included in emergency messages. For example, the fastest mode for emergency notifications may be text messaging, but text and Twitter messages have character space limitations. With our text message system, there are roughly 132 characters available before the information breaks apart into a second alert. This restriction only allows for enough words to alert the campus community to a situation and briefly direct their actions in response. Based on our experience, message templates are critical to preparing timely communications with essential information for alerting campus to a variety of possible situations. Ideally, the senior officer on campus could dispatch a text message by filling in a date and time to an existing alert template. With the UT Austin system, we can reach about 68,000 customers in approximately three minutes.
The systems that provide more detailed information are email, department websites, and other social media (e.g., Facebook). Email is not limited in size, but it is slower in delivery. Whenever we text a “Safety Alert” or “Timely Warning,” we follow up with a more detailed email. If your urgent email is not on its own server, it can take 30 minutes or so to get out 70,000 batched emails. For this reason, our university created a server entirely dedicated to this function. Our technology staff updates the mailing list regularly and conducts monthly and quarterly maintenance to ensure the system works when we need it. What used to take 30 minutes can now be accomplished in less than five under most circumstances.
Each agency or institution needs dedicated staff to monitor the varied landscape of social media. There are commercial products that look across social media platforms for content related to different situations. These same products allow cross-platform and cross-department posts in real time or to be scheduled ahead of time. Do not underestimate the value of responding to posts that contain rumors and false information. Facts, resources and informative posts from a “reliable” source can keep misstatements and gossip from creating a media firestorm.
Speed and frequency are key when it comes to managing social media. We can no longer accept the slow and unresponsive onsite investigation. All responding agencies must provide timely, factual and frequent information as the emergency event unfolds. The establishment of a Joint Information Center (JIC) can facilitate the flow of information from the Incident Command Center, but the Incident Command Center must provide the event updates and safety instructions as frequently as possible. In this new world of real-time reporting from bystanders and other “laypersons,” traditional media and the institution are pressured to validate facts and dispel rumor as quickly as possible. There are many other communications channels an organization can use. At UT Austin, in addition to text messaging, email and social media, we have:
UT Website: We have developed protocols for emergency announcements on the University website. It is imperative to establish the system for posting and determine the size of the post based on the severity of the situation.
Outdoor Warning System (Siren): The UT Austin outdoor warning system has both a siren alert and vocal capability. Templated language for the vocal component can reduce misstatements and misunderstandings.
Computer “Pop-Ups:” On more than 2,000 UT Austin campus computers, we have the capability to announce emergency situations. Again, there is not a lot of room for lengthy messages with this system, but it can alert the campus to a situation and let individuals know if action is required.
Emergency Communications System (ECS): This is an “in building” public address system that is activated from UT Austin Police Department Dispatch. This system is in 75 buildings. The system also includes a microphone in each of those buildings for use by the building managers. As we upgrade older fire alarm systems in the remaining buildings, we will add the ECS feature.
Building Access Control System (BACS): The plan for this system is to be able to lock all buildings from the UT Austin Police Department Dispatch. BACS would work in conjunction with ECS. While BACS is not a direct communications system, it is another tool that can be used to communicate to campus by locking down facilities. We have about 70 buildings finished and are working on the others. During normal operations, a building would be closed and all doors locked at a prescribed time determined by the building owner. After hours there would only be one door that could be entered and only with an access card. There would be a camera on that door for security purposes.
Reverse 911: The campus is completing a switch from analog/copper-wired phones to Voice over IP (VoIP). VoIP gives us the capability to call over 2,000 office phones during an emergency. Again, it is important to have templated language for the various emergencies your institution could experience.
1-800 Number: This is a no-brainer, right? But it needs to be set before an emergency and easily activated. All institutions need to think about who will be responsible for answering the calls. We have used the ITS Help Desk for this function at UT Austin. We provide a pre-recorded message (pre-templated) to handle most of the calls. In our experience, most callers are satisfied with a pre-recorded message referring them to the university website or social media for updates. If more information is needed, ITS Help Desk staff respond or take down questions/information for a follow-up response.
Trunk Radios: UT Austin is very fortunate to have an internal two-way radio communication system that is the same for all local area responders. This is of great value during an emergency where multiple agencies respond.
Campus TV/Flat Screen TVs: Throughout the campus there are numerous TVs and flatscreen displays that can be accessed to provide emergency information. Again, the process to post and use pre-determined templates is critical for these systems.
While many issues impact the ability to communicate during an emergency, I would like to highlight three areas that need thought prior to an actual emergency event.
First, who is responsible for communications across campus, to leadership, with your board or regents, and to traditional media? For example, at UT Austin, the UTPD chief notifies the VP of University Operations, who notifies the President’s Office, which communicates with the UT System at large regarding the emergency. As the AVP of Campus Safety and Security learns from the UTPD Chief of the incident, the Emergency Operations Center is activated, which then electronically communicates and collaborates with the campus departments and building managers, communications and information technology services, emergency preparedness director, university communications for the President’s Office and the communications department for University Operations. Responsibility for social media communications lies with University Operations and the President’s Office communications teams in the EOC, and these teams develop post-event messaging and activates the Joint Information Center (JIC) line for call-in media requests.
A chart denoting this chain of communication is included in the UT Austin Emergency Management Plan so that each department’s responsibilities are clear and in writing. To view the Communication Plan in the chart format, please go to the Emergency Management Plan on page 41 at http://www.utexas.edu/safety/preparedness/plans/
Second, who makes decisions about what to do and when? After action reports for many emergency situations have documented time lost while trying to “get authority or permission” to take an action. At UT Austin, we have attempted to tackle this problem by establishing protocols that list specific communications senior persons on campus will take during emergency situations. Those responsible for sending communications are empowered to do so at the initiation of a situation. Most, if not all, communications for emergency situations start with UTPD Dispatch. When an event happens, we send an alert as a “Rapid Notification” to individuals with critical roles on campus. This is a warning order that something is happening on campus. That individual or office must be prepared to perform some support function if needed. The “Rapid Notification” is followed by situational updates and at the end of the event, we send a “Significant Incident Notification” or “S.I.N.” to wrap up the event. The alert levels for significant events at The University of Texas at Austin and departments responsible for each communication channel include:
- Situational Advisory: Includes a rapid notification, listing on the UT event list, UTPD social media post (except for an incident of suicide) and S.I.N., typically for incidents on campus being responded to by emergency authorities but not disruptive to the campus, such as minor fire emergencies, minor auto accidents, suspicious odors or vandalism threats.
- UT Safety Alert: Includes a rapid notification, Safety Alert campus email (with optional postings on the UT website, campus TV and other displays), UTPD social media posts, and S.I.N., typically for incidents being responded to by emergency authorities and that are disruptive to a part of campus or a potential threat to the campus, such as hazardous material emergencies (contained), evacuation of a building or public venue, wind weather emergency, sexual assault, or an act of violence.
- Emergency Notifications: Involves a rapid notification, Safety Alert text (including a website update, emergency information line activations, campus TV notifications, outdoor warning systems, lockdowns, and more), a Safety Alert campus email, a UTPD social media post and a S.I.N., typically for incidents that are major disruptions to the campus and a credible threat, such as major fires, food poisoning medical emergencies, aircraft transportation accident, major traffic accidents resulting in injury or death, campus evacuations, bomb threats, the use of weapons, hostage situations and similar high-impact, high-risk events.
The third area that needs thought prior to an event is the frequency of communications. In an emergency, all involved are super busy and occupied. You need a chart to indicate the types of messages and the frequency by which they are sent. Someone must be assigned the responsibility for prodding responders and administration to prepare and distribute these messages. It is our experience that the campus community prefers to be updated every 15 to 30 minutes during a crisis situation, even if the update states that nothing has changed. That goal is a challenge, but is worth the effort to attain.
Emergency situations on our campuses will not go away. Understanding that methods and expectations for communications in today’s world have changed and recognizing the need for accurate and rapid flow of information across multiple types of communication channels is critical to a successful emergency response. Spend time before an emergency to plan out who communicates, and how to do it effectively. Good prior planning will help in coping with an emergency.