Using Social Media in a Crisis: A Snapshot

Chris Syme is a former higher education communications associate who now heads her own agency, CKSyme Media Group, based in Bozeman, Montana. The agency specializes in crisis/reputation communications, social media integration, and training.

A majority of higher education institutions have had one or more potential reputation-damaging events discussed in traditional and social media channels in the last 12 months, according to a new study. In addition, while 85 percent of reporting schools have crisis communications policies, only 59 percent of those policies address the use of social media in a crisis.

The study was conducted by in partnership with CASE in the fall of 2011. Highlights of the survey findings are below, reports for higher education and independent schools can be found on the CASE website and a full set of survey results can be seen on the CKSyme Media Group website.

The State of Crisis in Higher Education

In the last 12 months, 49 percent of responding institutions have had to enact crisis communications plans at least once. In that group, 7 percent had to enact their plan four to six times.

In the last 12 months, 66 percent of institutions reported that potential reputation-damaging events about their institutions were discussed in social media channels. Of that group, 7 percent reported four to six events, and 3 percent reported seven or more events discussed in social media channels. Five percent did not know if there were any conversations about them on social media channels.

The State of Social Media in Higher Education

All reporting institutions had an official presence on Facebook. Other official channels used were: Twitter (94 percent), YouTube or Vimeo (92 percent), LinkedIn (55 percent), official blog (31 percent), location-based check-ins (18 percent), and MySpace (3 percent).

Respondents reported having several other “non-official” social media channels operating under the institution’s umbrella. Heading up the list was alumni relations with 84 percent. Only 26 percent of institutions reported requiring registration or training for users who represent the institution on social media channels.

The State of Crisis Communications in Higher Education

Eighty-five percent of the respondents have a crisis communications policy.

Only 59 percent of the institutions with policies address the use of social media in that policy. Only 17 percent of the reporting institutions have a plan for “unofficial” social media channels that represent the university. Both of these statistics are troubling. Given that social media is the real-time channel of choice for public and news agencies for breaking news, schools would be wise to include social media in their crisis plans and to include a plan for all channels that represent the university.

Respondents with crisis communications plans were asked about what elements were included in their plan. Ninety-nine percent have an emergency email notification system. Other elements included were: media relations crisis plans (90 percent), text message alert systems (89 percent), dark or emergency websites (59 percent), a social media monitoring plan (56 percent), message templates or talking points (50 percent), and campus electronic signage (38 percent). The statistic that stands out here is the lack of a social media monitoring plan that can keep institutions aware of breaking news, online and traditional media mentions of their brand and help manage misinformation.

Best Practice Takeaways

  1. Implement a social media monitoring system–now. A social media monitoring system can help you keep track of what is being said about your institution in the social media universe, alert you to issues you may not be aware of and help you gauge public understanding and sentiment around an issue. See the blog on the survey for more information.
  2. Develop a social media policy. There is a misunderstanding among many that a social media policy is a prohibitive document. The best social media policies operate as a guide to empower people to use social media channels responsibly in a way that builds the organization’s brand. CASE has a collection of sample social media policies available to members as well as a previous post on the CASE blog.
  3. Implement a social media management system. A social media management system (SMMS) should have multiple functions that can facilitate monitoring, publishing, lead and conversion tracking, measurement and customer relationship management, depending on what your institution’s social media strategy is (see Jason Falls’ report on management systems).
  4. Establish registration or affiliation of campus social media accounts. Establishing a database of administrators and passwords held by a community manager allows the university to remove old accounts or delete or post to any university-related account in an emergency. Best practices for affiliated social media accounts are emerging from institutions like the University of New Hampshire and Tufts University.
  5. Establish a community manager for campus social media. Even though this last takeaway may seem redundant, many reporting institutions did not have one single supervisory department for all campus social media. This does not imply that one department should handle all campus social media, but that there should be a centralized resource that acts as a hub to the campus “spokes” so there is continuity in branding and messaging, especially in the event of a crisis.

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