How colleges use social media alerts during emergencies

What colleges can do to ensure social media strategies are a core part of campus emergency notification system processes
By: | Issue: March/April 2020
March 5, 2020
EVERYONE, DON'T DRINK THE WATER!—When the campus water supply became contaminated, Ohio University sent out social media messages to alert the public. Additional posts updated the community about what buildings were impacted and when the situation was resolved.

Emergency notification systems that allow campus officials to post and share alerts on college social media channels—so people can like, quote and leave comments—expands a college’s audience during live incidents.

And having multiple active channels increases the likelihood people will read them. Students are usually glued to Twitter feeds while parents may check their Facebook accounts first. Yet mass notification systems tend to use emails and texts for quick communication. Additionally, community members and prospective students not signed up to receive emergency messages can still come across university social media alerts if, for example, a friend retweets them. Emails and texts are much less likely to be forwarded. And using existing social media accounts for communication during an incident can require pushing out messaging manually.

While beneficial, adding social media strategies to emergency notification processes can be challenging. Following are some successful higher education social media strategy policies colleges are using to get the job done.

Connecting with college social media

Many emergency notification systems include Facebook and Twitter functionality so schools can automatically push messages from those platforms to the public. But early implementers, such as Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania, just a few years ago had to submit reports to their vendor to prove stakeholders needed social media added to their solution. University officials then manually linked the university’s main Facebook and Twitter profiles to the system. “The process has become easier since then,” says Darcy White, web communication director. “It’s becoming much more of an expected feature.”

Because of these extra steps, higher ed leaders underscore the importance of choosing solutions with built-in social media capabilities.


Related: How to improve social media messaging during emergencies


Connecticut College administrators recently adopted a mass notification platform that supports social media because students had requested that connection, but the school is continuing to post social media posts separately for now. “We need to gather our stakeholders first to agree upon what specific actions need to be taken in all possible scenarios so we can move nimbly in the moment,” says Julia Ferrante, executive director of media relations and communications. Currently, a college social media strategist manually types in wording from other alert channels in Facebook and Twitter messages to keep the language consistent, says Julia Ferrante, executive director of media relations and communications.

“That is an extra step, and turning on the social media capabilities would streamline that process, but we want to be sure that there is a thoughtful process in place to assess whether a social media message is appropriate in each case,” says Ferrante. The social media strategist has the authority to alter wording if necessary.

Going beyond automation

Last year, officials at Binghamton University enhanced their mass notification systems by installing push buttons that hang on the dispatch center wall. Pushing each button automates a response via social media and other channels.

PANIC BUTTON—Last year, officials at Binghamton University enhanced their emergency notifications by installing push buttons that hang on the dispatch center wall. Pushing each button automates a response via social media and other channels.

College officials who are comfortable with automating social media alerts still manually create posts for incidents that aren’t “life or death scenarios,” such as messages about weather or canceled classes, says Ryan Yarosh, senior director of media and public Relations of Binghamton University in New York. “I will write the post in these instances and include some sort of visual element that increases the odds of people seeing it.” He does this for every post on Instagram, since many systems don’t automate from that platform.


Related: Mass notification system providers on social media practices


Colleges may create preloaded templates for specific scenarios that only require some tinkering before sending them out. “These templates are about 90% complete so, whomever sends the alert just has to fill in, for example, the date, time, affected building and then send,” says Chris

Many colleges have policies where the system automatically sends a preloaded generic message for public action and then an official follows up with more details. But not every update during a live situation warrants a new social media message.

In September, a water pipe malfunction contaminated the water supply at Ohio University; students couldn’t brush their teeth, shower or drink tap water. To alert the public, Leatherwood first sent a social media post that drove everyone to the media alert page for details. Later, she updated the same page, writing that the city was continuing to work on situation. “This didn’t merit a push via our social channels since the status hadn’t really changed,” she says. However, she adds, a follow-up post was warranted about buildings were impacted by the contamination. “It’s really a judgement call.”

Words of wisdom

Additional social media strategies from campus communications and emergency management administrators

“Virtually operation support teams (VOST) are partnerships where nearby institutions monitor each other’s social media accounts. During an incident, we can get so caught up in trying to get out our messages and gather information, so it’s nice to have an extra pair of eyes to monitor what people are saying.”
—Ryan Yarosh, senior director of media and public Relations,
Binghamton University, New York

“Make sure you have a written plan to begin with so folks on the team understand their roles and you are not waiting until crisis. Perform tabletop testing by employing all of the different facets of the plan.”
—Carly Leatherwood, senior director of communications services,
Ohio University

“We have learned some lessons about the news media following all of the college’s posts, so if an incident happens on campus, media crews will be on their way quickly. Media management plans are now in place.”
—Alisa Pacer, director of emergency management,
Johnson County Community College, Kansas

“In an instance where seconds may matter, streamlining the messaging process leads to the quickest response. Even if we have automated scenarios set up for various possible situations, the agent sending the messages would need to trigger five messages instead of, say, two, if the message is longer.”
—Darcy White, director of web communications and development,
Slippery Rock University, Pennsylvania

“Some emergency notification systems can pull sections of alerts from the National Weather, for example, so our message contains different sections of the original alert. We can tell the system, ‘Pull line 1, 3 and 5 from this message and send it to these methods with this addition.’ ”
—Chris Gonyar, director of emergency management,
UNC Charlotte, North Carolina


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