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Crisis communications 2.0

New technologies are changing the way schools get the message out when a crisis erupts on campus. But the most valuable tool in the communications toolkit is still a well-tested plan


September 13, 2006, Dawson College, Montreal: a 25-year-old gunman kills one and injures 19. Seven months later at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia: a 23-year-old armed student kills 32 and injures 25.

Like the campus tragedies at Columbine High School in 1999 and at École Polytechnique 10 years before, the two recent events have led to a yearning for answers that could explain these unthinkable acts. Beyond the shared human tragedy, they have pushed university presidents and administrators responsible for communications and student safety in both countries to face their worst nightmare: another Columbine, another Montreal Massacre striking an institution here and now.

For these senior administrators, the recent killing sprees have also raised new questions about the role of communications and, in particular, the role that new technologies – unavailable in 1989 or even in 1999 – can play in preventing death and injury during an unfolding crisis.

“The Virginia Tech tragedy illustrates the importance of crisis communications and the ability to rapidly inform the campus community of an event as it is unfolding,” said Daphne Donaldson, university emergency planner at the University of Victoria who leads a UVic team that meets regularly to address emergency communications issues.

Most Canadian institutions have been or will be revisiting and updating their emergency response plans, including crisis communications, in the wake of Virginia Tech. In August, the University of Western Ontario held a simulation on campus to test the emergency response systems, inviting media and 85 observers, including representatives from municipal police forces and from universities and colleges in Ontario and Quebec. “The idea,” said Western’s campus police director Elgin Austen, “is to test all the systems integrated with the local police.” The one-day exercise simulated a rampage, where a student killed four and injured more than a dozen in a student residence before taking his own life.

“I cannot tell you how important this kind of exercise is,” said Western’s new director of media relations Ann Hutchison a few days later. “I doubled my learning in that one day. And I’ve been teaching crisis communications to executives and organizations for four or five years!”

“Tremendously nervous” during the exercise, she said she found it hard to think or move quickly while in a panic. Western had developed templates for a new home page, mass e-mails and press releases – but she learned that these weren’t enough for all the unfolding scenarios. Ms. Hutchison said an important outcome of the exercise will be developing a more detailed communications plan and outlining the role each staff member in the communications department will play during a crisis.

In any campus emergency, whether violent or not, the most important lessons for an institution often relate to communications planning. During the SARS outbreak in Toronto in 2003, the University of Toronto realized it needed “a very clear communications strategy,” said Andrea Sass-Kortsak, vice-dean, graduate affairs, in U of T’s faculty of medicine. She advised universities to consider setting up a virtual command centre because decision-makers may not be able to get together in one place during emergencies like flu pandemics. It’s also important to communicate to students, staff and faculty that the institution has a crisis plan – or plans – and where they can read about the broad outlines (most likely on the website).

The Virginia Tech tragedy underlines how universities have to “continuously examine their crisis communications plan because of continuous advancements in technology,” said Mark Greenfield, director of web services at the University of Buffalo. In a web posting in April, he noted that many schools revisited their crisis management planning after 9/11, and advised his colleagues in higher-ed communications to think about the ways technology has changed since then. “There are so many more tools today to get the word out than there were five years ago.”

Cell phones, text messaging, and multiple pre-planned websites are among the newer communications tools. One school that’s using all of them is the University of Florida. After weathering many hurricanes, it developed a well-rounded crisis communication plan that takes effect with each serious storm and is reviewed regularly. Joe Hice, associate vice-president for marketing and public relations at U of Florida, said following Virginia Tech, his institution chose “a comprehensive solution that will allow us to send alerts via phones, cell phones, e-mail and text messages.”

The university also realized its “opt-in” system to send text messages to students wouldn’t be enough in the event of something as big as what occurred at Virginia Tech. This semester, U of Florida is requiring students to provide a valid e-mail address and emergency phone number before registering for classes. Mr. Hice warned that a cell phone alert system is only as good as the university’s contacts data base – if students don’t update their contact information on a regular basis, notifications won’t do any good.

An issue with text messages for cell phones is their very limited format. Most text messages can’t exceed 150 characters, a constraint that requires good copywriting skills. In a webinar about crisis communication that Mr. Hice presented last June to about 150 professionals on 43 campuses in the U.S. and Canada, he advised communicators to write text messages in advance to cover as many crisis situations as possible. That way they can be sent on a moment’s notice.

Even with a well thought-out plan, no single technology is a perfect solution. Electrical power goes out, phone lines get jammed, and web servers go down. At Dawson College, students relied on cell phones and text messages to let each other know what was happening – until the cell-phone network crashed. This past August, the University of Iowa, after receiving an anonymous threat of pipe bombs left on campus, sent a mass e-mailing to some 45,000 people, but it takes from 90 minutes to two hours for that many messages to get delivered.

Both Dawson and Virginia Tech were criticized for their communications responses – Dawson for its lack of communication after the shooting, and Virginia Tech, for waiting two hours before letting the community know that a shooting had occured on campus.

But these kinds of decisions are not as obvious as they seem on the surface.

Western’s police director Mr. Austen said that once the municipal police arrive, it’s their decision on whether to alert the campus. Indeed, Donna Varrica, communications coordinator at Dawson College, said that when the police took control of operations on the day of the shooting, “they determined that sounding an alarm or making a public announcement would cause more chaos and elevate the danger level.”

Emergency communications planners also need to consider the impact of a campus-wide alert, said Ms. Hutchison of Western. “Now we have the capability of communicating widely … But what is the aftershock of those warnings? Are you prepared for the number of phone calls that arrive after a mass e-mailing to 45,000 people?”

That’s one reason why it’s so important to rely on a mix of low- and high-tech tools to make sure emergency alerts reach as many students, faculty and staff members as possible. John Danakas, director of public affairs at the University of Manitoba, said the crisis communication plan of his institution includes low-tech options such as alarms and car-mounted loudspeakers and hand-held megaphones. UVic’s plan lists PA systems in some buildings as a way to broadcast emergency alerts as well. The same is true in Dawson’s new plan.

According to many experts, a university website is still the best way to provide frequent updates and detailed instructions to the most people after the first alert is given. Parents, friends, media and the public will be checking the homepage as soon as they hear the news.

“On April 16, the Virginia Tech homepage received more than a million visits, almost 10 times the traffic of a typical Monday,” said Mike Dame, web communication director at Virginia Tech. Two extra servers were needed to support the traffic that day, despite the use of a text-only homepage starting just after 10 a.m. and updated throughout the day.

The reason Virginia Tech had a “light version” of its website ready to use throughout the tragedy was because it had experienced another crisis eight months earlier: an escaped convict killed a security guard and a police officer near the Blacksburg campus, and the campus was closed. After that incident, Mr. Dame and his team prepared a stripped-down version of the home- page by removing the biggest graphics and simplifying the navigation. Ready to use, this light version went live very quickly on April 16.

Planning and preparation did make a big difference in Virginia Tech’s capacity to provide regular updates to its campus community, parents, friends and media representatives. Constantly updated with information and photos, the website homepage was praised by constituents and the higher education community at large.

While new technologies can definitely help distribute emergency alerts to thousands in minutes, they can’t replace a sound crisis manage- ment plan outlining possible threats with associated responses. “You must have a fully written, implemented and tested crisis communication plan that is led by a seasoned issues management team,” stressed Christopher Simpson, chief executive of Simpson- Scarborough, a U.S. firm specialized in crisis communication.

After going through the mockup of Western’s campus emergency response in August, Ms. Hutchison concluded, “The answer is not so much in the technology as it is in what the message is, and what it will achieve.”

Karine Joly writes about communications technology issues in higher education in her blog ( With files from Peggy Berkowitz.

For links to more resources, read this article online at

Mass shootings on Canadian campuses

* September 13, 2006 at Dawson College: Kimveer Gill, 25 years old, killed one student and injured 19 before taking his own life.
* August 24, 1992 at Concordia University: Valery Fabrikant, an engineering professor, killed four colleagues from the department of engineering.
* December, 6 1989 at École Polytechnique: Marc Lépine killed 14 women and injured 13 others before taking his own life.

Dawson’s new emergency notification system

After the September 2006 tragedy, Dawson College contracted a security consulting firm to audit existing security installations and make recommendations. “We have made sweeping changes to the tune of half a million to three-quarters of a million dollars,” said Donna Varrica, coordinator for communications at Dawson. The new technologies retained by the institution to improve emergency communications include:

* A dedicated cell phone network with 27 antennae installed on campus, which will provide enhanced coverage throughout the building, including areas four floors below street level.
* Thirty cell phones (including 10 with data-transfer capability such as Blackberries) for members of the crisis management team. All phones are equipped with a walkie-talkie feature that can override the network in case it crashes.
* Improved landline capacity, including better emergency telephone equipment as well as more lines and panic buttons tied to security stations. The new equipment has the ability to trace a 911 call or record a distress call.
* A new two-way public address system that can broadcast deeper into the building than the previous system, which operated only in corridors. It can be activated in sections and if a general announcement isn’t deemed possible, people in specific areas can be alerted, directed to the safest exits or asked to stay where they are.

Top tips for crisis communications

1. Make sure the chief communication officer of your institution is part of your emergency team.
2. Include in your crisis plan the institutional response to different possible scenarios. Define the type of communication channels to be used for each situation and prepare the templates for each so that you can update and send these templates in minutes.
3. Practise, practise, practise. Train your emergency team to assess, evaluate and make decisions. Review and edit your crisis plan with what you learn from your drills.
4. Work with the municipal police in the planning and testing of the emergency response, including communications.
5. In a crisis, send your alert bulletins via several communication channels (phone, cell phone, e-mail, text messages, loud speaker, PA systems, etc.) and post the bulletins on a “light” homepage of your website
6. Use your website as the main hub for communications with your campus community, parents, media representatives and the rest of the world during and after the crisis.

Karine Joly
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