Enabling Your Higher Ed Website as a Crisis Communications Tool

June 04, 2015

The serenity of life on a college campus can be interrupted without a moment’s notice by a crisis. This could be an inclement weather event, a chemical spill, or even an act of violence.

When these incidents occur, communications staff must immediately spring into action, keeping both the immediate and extended campus community informed. This is when your website transforms from core business asset to invaluable crisis communications platform.

We strive to develop higher ed websites to become effective customer-facing marketing and information tools. But we can’t neglect the role we hope they’ll never be called upon to serve: crisis communications vehicle.

In that circumstance, marketing and messaging doesn’t matter. It’s all about disseminating relevant information quickly and accurately -- people’s safety and well-being are at stake. So as we construct these marketing platforms, we must build in the capacity for nimble, efficient communications.

A Hub of Accuracy and Authority

During a crisis, your website functions as a hub in a communications machine. Emergency alert texts and social media posts often point people to the institution’s website during a crisis. As social media channels operate in fast-and-furious two-way mode -- responding to inquiries from concerned parties, correcting misinformation, disseminating updates in real-time -- your website complements those platforms as a central, authoritative source of information.

Even without your directing people toward your website through social and text messages, people will head there when receiving word of a crisis on campus. This excellent and thorough presentation [PDF] by Mark Owczarski, assistant vice president for news and information at Virginia Tech, details their communications strategy during and immediately following the tragic April 16, 2007 mass shooting that claimed 32 lives. As this chart indicates, they experienced a sharp surge in website traffic on the day of the shooting.

This traffic spike represents a blend of on-campus community members, family of students, local residents, media, alumni, and other concerned parties.

So, if we find ourselves in the position to reenvision our website, how can we build it to function as we need it to during a crisis?

Before Anything Else, Have a Plan
Crisis communications is about much more than your digital platforms. It’s a broad, campus-wide effort with online and offline components. Whatever plan you have for your website should fit into a broader plan of crisis management and communications.

Create a Workflow
In a way, crisis communications planning is a niche form of content strategy. You need a comprehensive multi-channel publishing plan, complete with established roles and workflow, that you can simply implement and execute if the need arises.

  • Work out in advance what those roles are, who will fulfill them, and what the workflow will be. Who provides the latest, most accurate information to get posted? (You don’t want a scenario where you are being fed conflicting information from multiple stakeholders.)
  • Are there drafts or templates in place that can be modified to save time, and a brief style guide for reference if custom messages need to be crafted?
  • Is everyone trained (and cross-trained) to execute their role efficiently?
  • Is there documentation easily accessible for reference (including logins and passwords to systems that may be infrequently used)?
  • What other channels are mobilized during a crisis (e.g. emergency alert system, social media, digital signage, campus-wide email, loudspeakers) and how does the website work in complement to them? Are they all drawing from the same, authoritative source of information?

Also, keep in mind that crises don’t happen between 9 and 5. They may happen on a Saturday at 3AM, when nobody is in the office. That means thinking through remote access to update your site, and having backups to your backups for who is charged to make updates (people go on vacations or can simply be unreachable, after all).

Central Communications in a Decentralized Landscape
Decentralized content management can be a challenge on a normal day. What about during a crisis, when a single, consistent, accurate stream of information is imperative? Consider how to ensure the definitive crisis-related information is shared site-wide -- perhaps a red box that appears in a universal header and pushes down the page, featuring the latest update from the homepage and a link to more information.

Also, consider having a policy in place that when the crisis communications plan is activated, all units are prohibited from communicating independently about the crisis and must point to and disseminate the institution’s central posts about the crisis. If a crisis is unfolding in the science building, the manager of the chemistry program’s website or Twitter account should not be independently communicating about the crisis status on campus, since he or she likely does not have the full picture.

Run Regular Drills
We might think we’ve figured out the best roles and workflow for activating our communications channels to function during a crisis, but the worst time to find out that it doesn’t work is when you need it the most.

That’s why scheduling regular drills (perhaps quarterly) is important, not only to ensure your protocol works as intended, but to keep the people charged with implementing it both refreshed on the skills and tasks involved and mindful of the importance of their role.

Adapt Your Site to a Crisis Role
As mentioned above, marketing doesn’t matter during a crisis. So should the cheery hero image gallery of laughing students still be present alongside serious updates about campus safety? Consider ways to easily remove or hide inessential content elements during a crisis.

Many institutions create sub-sites that function as hubs of information during a crisis. Others take over homepage real estate with important information relevant to the crisis (read about Duke’s “lite website”). There should be some visual distinctiveness to convey that this is urgent, out-of-the-ordinary communication.

Performance Anxiety
Your best laid plans for crisis communications can be upended suddenly by a server crash. As much as we work to refine our front-end systems and process, we need to be sure our backend systems can support that effort. Work with your system administrators to ensure you have adequate load balancing and server capacity in place, and explore off-site hosting (or backup hosting) options if necessary.

In addition, taking web performance into consideration as you build your website has a lot of benefits, but it will certainly serve you well during the traffic spikes that come with a crisis.

A Holistic Approach

When a crisis strikes, technology alone won’t save the day. And the most refined workflow will be wasted if your systems don’t support it. It takes a close partnership of technology and planning to make a crisis communications plan work smoothly. And if you are revisiting your institutional website, you can lay part of the groundwork now to ensure your plan is effective when you need it the most.

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