Friday, September 28, 2007

your message: urgent. short. life-saving?

Five months after the shootings at Virginia Tech, another campus faced a gunman yesterday -- and avoided disaster with a campus-wide text message. Today's New York Times coverage offers a step-by-step view of the challenge for campus communicators. The article describes how St. John's University's chief operating officer weighed which medium would work for emergency messages:
After the crisis at Virginia Tech, “everything from bullhorns to texting was considered,” said Dr. Pellow, who is also the university’s executive vice president. “How do you communicate instantly? Because the expectation now is instant communication.”
A text-messaging option at the Manhattan campus drew just over 2,000 student subscribers--about 10 percent of the university's 20,000 population. And it was tested yesterday when a gunman, masked and armed with a rifle, walked on campus:
That was at 2:20 p.m. At 2:30, Mr. Hiraman had been apprehended, but there were reports of a second gunman. Within minutes, Thomas Lawrence, the university’s vice president for public safety, had dictated this message: “From public safety. Male was found on campus with a rifle. Please stay in your buildings until further notice. He is in custody, but please wait until the all-clear.” An information technology specialist pressed the “send” button at 2:38.
What we noticed: The 18-minute turnaround for a carefully crafted message is impressive, and while it's longer than a typical text, it avoids confusion through shorthand. The episode makes clear that you should check your assumptions about how and whether your audience will react to such a message; in this case, students said they hadn't subscribed to the text service because they didn't want spam, or thought it would alert them to schedule changes, such as snow days. Can you count on those receiving the message to share it with others? (After yesterday's incident, subscribers to the text alert system more than tripled.) Best of all: add these scenarios to your crisis communication plan. A fast and responsible response can only happen with preparation.

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