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Two-year colleges harness services like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube for everything from building attendance at campus events to helping students stay in school. But colleges are also learning that once they establish open lines of communication with students on social media, those avenues will be looked to for all types of information, including fast, transparent, two-way communication in a crisis.
In the past 15 months, Atlantic Cape Community College (Atlantic Cape) in New Jersey has employed social media as part of an integrated communication strategy to update students, staff and other stakeholders about an impending hurricane, an on-campus manhunt, two bomb threats and a lockdown due to gunfire.
This article is part of a bimonthly series provided by the National Council for Marketing and Public Relations, an affiliated council of the American Association of Community Colleges.
Atlantic Cape’s emergency warning and notification plan uses a number of platforms and includes FM Alerts and fire alarms, text alerts, postings on Facebook and Twitter, website announcements and global emails. College staff members find that social media tools—due to their speed and reach—can help alert the campus in an emergency and meet the requirements for emergency notification and timely warning under the Clery Act.
A review of Atlantic Cape’s procedures, and those of other colleges around the country, identified these best practices:
“We realized we were vulnerable when it comes to a crisis,” said Eric Melcher, communications coordinator at Volunteer State. “It taught us we needed several different channels.”
When Collin College near Dallas, Texas, had a shooting several years ago, “we found Facebook and Twitter to be among the fastest and most effective when seconds counted,” said Lisa Vasquez, vice president, public relations and college development.
“One person using a cell phone can hit all sources instantaneously with one message,” Melcher noted.
Similar mass notification features are offered by Rave Alert—Atlantic Cape’s text product—and Blackboard Connect, among others. If your text alert product doesn’t have this function, it’s important that your communication plan spells out which tools you’ll use and in what order.
Throughout an incident, such last February’s campus lockdown while police searched for an escaped prisoner, college relations staff monitor and reply to social media inquiries and provide updates.
Be accurate and transparent. Not only will your social media followers watch what you post, so will members of the news media.
“It helped us with two-way communication...knowing what people needed reassurance about and what they were seeing from the inside of the lockdown,” she said.
Last January, students at Dakota County Technical College in Minnesota began making posts to the college’s Facebook account expressing concern because their financial aid overages—scheduled to be deposited into their accounts that morning—had not yet arrived. Administrators quickly learned that technical issues had caused a delay and began correcting the problem. Throughout the day, more than 200 posts were made to the college’s Facebook account, each of which was responded to directly, according to Erin Edlund, director of institutional advancement. Students later posted on Facebook thanking the college for its response.
So whether they use social media to help keep students, faculty and staff safe in an emergency or to detect an impending threat, colleges have a powerful new tool to help them with crisis and reputation management. And, as Collin College’s Vasquez noted, “Social media has really changed the speed at which we have to respond.”
Corbalis is executive director of college relations at Atlantic Cape Community College (New Jersey) and national secretary of the National Council for Marketing and Public Relations.
Copyright ©2012 American Association of Community Colleges