Communication in a Time of Crisis

At the University of Virginia, a student mistakes a homemade electric bike for a bike with an attached bomb. A campus-wide “Run, Hide, Fight” email goes out at the University of Wisconsin–Whitewater due to “a technical issue with the system.” Building evacuations and lockdowns occur at Colorado Mesa University and Riverside City College after what was determined to be malfunctioning sound equipment and fireworks. A balloon-popping event (Colorado Mesa University), human error during a training event (Texas Tech University), and an armored car guard (University of California–Berkeley) led to lockdowns, evacuations, and active shooter searches.

The list of false alarms on college campuses goes on and on for 2018, and campuses are under scrutiny for how they communicate those alarms prior to knowing whether a potential threat is substantiated or considered false. Crisis messaging often weighs effective and accurate responses with the need for speed, along with a desire to control the narrative going on through social media.

Any crisis communication should be designed to build, maintain, or restore trust; provide knowledge; guide appropriate actions and behaviors; and encourage assistance and cooperation. With those four foundational principles in mind, crisis communications plans have become more rigorous, comprehensive, and painstakingly assessed.

There are now university alert notification webpages that spell out crisis communication plans, the types of alerts, how each type is communicated, and the strengths and limitations of those alert tools. Tabletop and live active shooter drills, along with “after action” meetings, have become a campus norm. And high-tech companies are being hired to provide emergency email and text notification systems, behavioral risk and threat assessment programs, and third-party impact management and effectiveness reviews.

Transparency, teamwork, and preparation were the takeaway attributes of a recent tabletop drill at Wayne State University in Detroit where student center associate director Katie Beaulieu was one of 30 university personnel taking part in the two-hour activity. Asked at the beginning of the active shooter scenario what each person would be doing in timed increments—10 seconds in, 60 seconds in, two minutes in—Beaulieu said the greatest benefit came from hearing the responses from police and emergency personnel.

“When they shared with us what they were thinking, to know what they were going to be thinking about, was incredibly helpful,” she said. “That was unique and good to hear.”

Beaulieu said union staff have an ongoing conversation with their 80 or so student staffers about crisis communication and response. The university and union crisis communication and response plans are on a shared computer drive and are covered formally once a year with each employee. “But we’re in an urban area where we often have uninvited guests in our center, so we also have a refresher on emergency management information at our monthly staff training,” she explained.

Besides keeping crisis awareness in the continuum of training for employees, unions often now have third-party tenants like banks, spiritual centers, even doctor’s offices, so it’s important to maintain an updated tenant employee list within any notification directory and to include those tenants on communications. Event managers can also plan for how best to alert outside conferences that might not be included on university communications.

Leading crisis experts like Firestorm Solutions often espouse a three-phase development plan of predict, plan, and perform. Predicting involves assessing readiness, defining reporting and investigation requirements, classifying risks, and identifying infrastructure needs. The planning phase is when strategies are developed; plans, polices, and procedures are created; key personnel are identified; and training programs are developed. The final performance phase establishes implementation protocols, first responder involvement, communications and test exercises, and “after action” meetings.


  • Steve Chaplin

    Steve Chaplin is managing editor of ACUI’s The Bulletin and manager of the ACUI College Union and Student Activities (CUSA) Evaluation Program. A former newspaper writer, editor, and manager, he has volunteered as a student mentor as a member of the National Association of Science Writers, and received awards for his writing and reporting from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, the Kentucky Education Association, and the Kentucky Press Association.

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