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Managing Social Media During Times of Campus Unrest

Tips for disseminating information, maintaining transparency and making the campus community feel heard during an on-campus incident.

January 15, 2021
 
 

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the Capitol and with the upcoming inauguration, many of us are in a state of heightened awareness, on edge due to credible threats of attack that continue to disrupt our communities and our campuses. This is very different from students peacefully protesting on campus, and while there’s a need for the institution to respond in some way and acknowledge and engage with the students, these peaceful protests do not constitute a crisis. But in situations with escalating potential danger or the threat of damage to campus property in a riot, timely and transparent communication needs to be in place on social media.

Unlike many other campus crises that may pop up with little to no notice and opportunity for warning being a bit limited, with this particular situation we have the potential for forethought. It’s essential to revisit our crisis plans and get an incident response committee in place and boilerplate language ready for social media.

It is important to first identify the right committee for social language approval, ideally a small number of people who are connected to issues that may arise on campus -- the appropriate people from the marcomms team as well as representatives from student affairs and public safety. This team should be comprised of people who understand the need to act quickly, since composing and posting social language requires a tight turnaround to address something specific and potentially dangerous on campus. Additionally, these people should be gathered because they understand different audiences from different perspectives. Their input should be used as gut checks for how language and tone will resonate with the campus communities. Having an incident committee that can be used to approve social media posts almost in real time and also spitball responses is something that can and should be pulled together as part of a crisis plan.

The need for transparency in social media responses and engagement is high, especially as events have the potential to become dangerous. It's important not to try to minimize incidents, or make light of any danger but be absolutely clear about exactly what's happening on campus: where potential danger is and who is responding, whether it’s campus police or community law enforcement.

If events do escalate to the point of danger, the incident response committee needs to be prepared to respond frequently; it depends on the institution and where their primary audiences are, but news sharing is probably most appropriate on Facebook and Twitter and possibly Instagram through the Stories feature. Posts should happen about every 15 minutes for the first hour of crisis, and then every 30 minutes thereafter unless information is available sooner. The posts can be a reiteration of what’s already been said or any official position or updates as they happen. But the longer the time that passes between updates and posts as an actual incident is going on, the more potential there is for misinformation to spread. This is particularly relevant on larger campuses, where student and media coverage of any potential issues is going to be more frequent and louder.

Following these outside sources of coverage is important; social media monitoring is essential during times of campus upheaval. It’s imperative for the institution to have a pulse on what students, alumni, parents, faculty, staff and the greater community are saying, what their wants and needs are. The incident response committee needs to be open and compassionate to students who feel victimized or anyone who feels endangered.

Social listening can also be used to make a decision on whether or not to respond on social media, especially directly to students. There are pros and cons to both sides, but social monitoring can help the response team consider important questions like whether to respond with general language or direct people to resources that have been set up, or establish the institution’s position and then shut comments off. If you do decide to directly engage with students, you need to establish whether it will be as the institution’s account or if a well-respected member of the leadership team is going to be a point person. The incident response committee also needs a clear role, whether it’s writing drafts for the institution or leadership team or reviewing and filtering comments from the point person. These are decisions that need to be made really quickly, but being prepared in advance helps to stay on top of social media during a crisis.

While it may seem like a minor point, make sure that any current social calendars are paused; it’s extremely unwise to interrupt important information with a post of the president’s dog if there’s an escalating situation and potential danger on campus. The tone of social media posts should be very focused so that anyone checking in would see that the institution is tackling and acknowledging an incident head-on.

As any unrest dies down, whether due to arrests and violence or things ending peacefully, it’s pertinent to do a postmortem and offer students and campus community members resources after the fact -- people they can talk to, places where they can go to have peaceful dialogue and channel emotions. Social media posts can help point students in the right direction for finding what they need to work through the aftermath of any events or potential trauma.

The strength of campuses to respond to crises has been tested frequently in the past year especially. Unfortunately, the potential for more tests is high. With unrest likely to come in the next several days and possibly weeks with the administration change, it is crucial to be prepared.


Kylie Kinnaman is an engagement strategist at TVP Communications, a national public relations and crisis communications agency solely focused on higher education.

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