This 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. Messages 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.
Perhaps 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.