Ignite The Heights

1This past Saturday evening started off like most do for the typical BC student: get ready to go out, go to the bar, and make it home in time before 2 a.m. to get Late Night. The typical weekend events became not so typical at the same time that many triumphant students stood outside Lower polishing off their last few mozzarella sticks. In the early hours of Sunday morning, a text message was sent by the BC Emergency alert system and received by those lucky few who still had battery on their phones after a long night out. The text read, “BC Emergency. Small fires have been reported on campus in Gasson and Stokes. Contact BCPD with information or to report suspicious activity at 617-552-4440.” Around the same time, a similar message was sent via e-mail and Twitter to the BC community. Immediately after, chatter began amongst the students. Most prayed that everyone was safe, some offered theories about potential culprits, and some suggested it might be a false alert message similar to the one sent a few weeks ago. But, what they all had in common is that all students stayed clear of the buildings. The text message and twitter alerts proved to be successful in spreading the news as fast as possible around campus.

For those wondering, the most recent update regarding the cause of the fire was posted in the Boston Globe last evening. “John M. King, Boston College’s police chief and public safety director, said…that the cause of the fires remains under investigation. But… authorities believe the fires were set and that they are “suspicious in nature.”

This incident led me to consider the crucial role that social media now plays in crisis communication, specifically for Universities. Many students probably don’t know that there is an entire website dedicated to provide information for students on campus preparedness and emergency information. During times of crisis, the website divulges that messages will be distributed through some-what traditional channels, such as an informational phone line, website, and e-mail. 2Messages are also distributed through not-so traditional channels, such as text messages, Facebook, and Twitter. By combining both conventional and unconventional distribution mechanisms, BCPD is able to increase the pool of all possible recipients who hear the news, and can take appropriate actions to safety. Students should sleep better knowing that there are measures in place to effectively inform the community of significant incidents on campus.

Unfortunately, campus emergencies have become even more frequent over the past few years. The Boston College Police Department, and all University Police Departments, have continuously displayed above and beyond efforts to protect their respective student bodies. But I would argue that the integration of social media into these efforts has significantly enhanced their ability to do so. During a time of crisis, communicating information as quick as possible to as many people as possible is essential—both are key features of social media. When campus alerts are sent out through these mediums, officials are increasing the likelihood that these messages will be received. Because students use their iPhones, Twitter, and Facebook accounts daily. Delivering messages through these channels captures students on the move, and it is not dependent on a fixed location. For these reasons, social media has proven to be vital in diffusing information during a time of crisis.

twitter-va-techjpeg-1b29778fe93c11cbPerhaps the best way to measure the value of social media in crisis management is by looking at two similar, very unfortunate, emergencies that took place at Virginia Tech. Death by gunfire has occurred on the campus in two separate instances within four years, but the responses to these emergencies were drastically different. As most of you probably remember, in 2007, a shooter massacred thirty-three people on campus. It took more than two hours after the first gun shot for the university to send out an e-mail informing the campus community of the shooting. In fact, the school was fined for waiting so long to send a warning to students. The tragedy could obviously not have been prevented simply by switching from an email alert to a social media alert, but this transition was proven to be effective four years later when the campus faced yet another heartbreaking crisis. In 2011, gunfire erupted while a campus cop was making a routine traffic stop, leaving two dead. Minutes after the first shots were fired, emergency text alerts were sent to all Virginia Tech students. Twitter and Facebook posts were also updated immediately following the shooting. A student remarked that after these alerts were received, the campus was “instantly a ghost town.” Certainly there are obvious differences between these two shooting events, but the notification system that employed social media proved to be more effective in terms of minimizing response time and successfully reaching the mobile student body.

Many probably would not have predicted that Facebook or group messages would seriously be used in a time of emergency. But, this is smart use of social media. It is important for the public to continue to redefine their impressions of social media and regard it as a valuable resource in disseminating information. In an age that is criticized for being plugged-in at all times, I will happily accept this criticism for I know that this connectedness will allow me to hear of any public safety threats in real time.

Just to clarify: this post is discussing the use of social media by officials, and not unverifiable sources; although, the latter has proven to be helpful in times of crisis as well.


  1. Interesting post — I have to say it makes me go back to the Marathon bombings last year. I wondered why BC never sent out an alert with information. Personally I was really angry that that never happened, and I was extremely uninformed in the early stages of the bombings as a result.

    I think that after the bombings, the BC emergency communication system will be much better. This also reminds me of a warning about a shooter at URI last year (turns out there was none), but I found out about it on FB, and much of the university news and updates about the shooter were on FB.

    How was this communicated before social media? Students can now be much more informed about emergencies on campus. I for one am glad for the speedier communication of information.

  2. Great post! I agree with both you and Sydney about how emergency communication systems make great improvements after a dangerous situation has occurred. When incidents like this happen, I’d rather be inform even if some of the information is not totally accurate than to be lost all together because officials want to have all the facts before letting others know. Through these different social media channels, you are able to reach a large audience in a very short amount of time. People can then make smart decisions on how best to protect themselves from the situation. I think Professor Kane said it best that social media is the best form of news 5 minutes after an emergency and the worst form of news 2 hours later.

  3. Megan Johnson · ·

    Awesome post, Meghan! I’m always interested in social media and crisis communication because it seems to make all the difference.

    I agree with Syd on this because I actually tweeted at BC about their lack of communication with us because I was furious. Granted, none of us knew what was going on, but BC seemed to have nothing to say to its students for hours. They tweeted back at me to check their alert page on their site and I responded that that was not a site BC students knew we were supposed to check. It’s not like we got an email saying CHECK THE ALERT PAGE. We were just supposed to know? I was absolutely furious that I was seeing more information from schools that were nowhere near the marathon.

    I think it’s such an important contribution to society that social media is able to give us instant updates. Like you said, Meghan, we don’t have to see a connected society as a bad thing. I would rather be updated on these alerts and be criticized for being too connected and available than not know what’s going on when it’s critical. Great post!

  4. There is absolutely no doubt that social media is great way to communicate. Whether it be news, sports, pop culture, or emergencies, social media is a quick way to get in touch with a lot of people. It also creates great word-of-mouth communication that benefits people who don’t use social media.

    I would argue that for universities, social media (including email and texting) is the only way to effectively communicate emergency announcements. Elaborating on Megan’s experience with BC and the alerts page, students simply don’t inform themselves correctly. I’m sure many of us are guilty of this (including myself). If there is one way to know that you’ll reach people aged 18-22 it is through social media and text messaging. As you said in your closing paragraph, we’re all plugged in at all times.

  5. Nice post. The VT incident was both what prompted universities to become more proactive in spreading emergency info, as well as what got me interested in social media.

  6. Great post, I totally agree with everything that you touched on. I think that an emergency communication system is something that social media has helped tremendously. I absolutely second what Sydney said about the bombing and how the lack of information was not only frustrating but downright scary not knowing anything. Social media is always crazy but like others said above I would’ve loved to know about this alert page before their was an emergency so I would’ve known where to look.
    To go back to what Syd said, I wonder what people did before social media. Would you get the information out by word of mouth? I can remember the shootings that happened about 10 years ago in northern Virginia and the only way anyone found anything out was through the news on TV. Social media is and will continue to be a humongous help in times of crisis. The only question will be: how well can people use it?

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