Virginia Tech: Social Media in Crisis Planning

by Marianne Richmond on April 17, 2007

One of the topics discussed at the CDC panel on public healthcare blogging was the way in a social media world that information is disseminated in the time of a crisis.

As Craig Lefebvre highlighted, if a situation like the Anthrax scare occurred today information would be communicated through blogs, mobile phones, social networks, IMs. It would be important for an organization such as the CDC to be able to actively participate within this environment and for people to be aware that they were providing accurate, timely, and informed news and recommendations. This issue was noted by Susan Promislo on the Pioneering Blog write up of the CDC Event.

Yesterday’s incomprehensible tragic events at Virginia Tech also highlight the way the information is disseminated during a crisis and the need for "official" sources to use social media tools as part of their crisis management plan. I think one of the thoughts that became crystallized for me during the CDC panel and the Forrester Marketing Forum is that if social media was viewed in light of this is a tool, what can I use it for to enhance my communications (which is of course dependent upon what the goal is) the very real benefits of social media would be recognized and adoption would be more widespread.

Stephen Crowley NYT

The New York Times documents the "official" university communication:

The school did not notify students by e-mail of the first shootings until 9:26 a.m., said Matt Dixon, who lives in the dorm. Mr. Dixon did not receive the e-mail message until he returned from his 9:05 class. When he left for that class, he said, a resident adviser told him not to use the central stairs, so he left another way.

On dry erase boards, advisers had written, “Stay in your rooms,” Mr. Dixon said.

The Washington Post notes a 2 Hour Time Gap and asks this: A single question stood out yesterday at Virginia Tech: Would more students be alive if the university had stopped them from going to class after a shooting occurred in a campus dorm?

Steve Helber-AP

The campus newspaper, The Collegiate Times began filing blog posts at  9:47AM, 2 minutes after the shooting began at Norris Hall according to Information Week. The very first shooting occured at 7:15AM at West Ambler Johnston Hall.

Students at Virginia Tech used mobile phones, digital cameras, social networks such as Flickr,  Facebook and MySpace, blogs and video to communicate with each other and to document the tragedy in real time.

The question is, why weren’t the instant tools: Text and voice messages used by the university to notify students? These students are wired….this is the way to communicate with them. It can save lives and that is not hyperbole. Every organization, business, schools and universities ( and even families) should give serious thought to using these tools as part of their crisis planning.

And one headline notes that in the absence of "official news",  "Internet Names the Wrong Killer". It is important that official news be available. In the absence, just as was discussed at the CDC panel, information will be provided by anyone with a mobile phone, internet access,  blog, social network or Twitter.

So, instead of asking "Why weren’t" looking at social media as an opportunity to enhance communications and developing a social media strategy makes complete sense.  Toby Bloomberg notes 10 Benefits of a Social Media Strategy  in her write up of the CDC panel.

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