[Updated: with link to blog post about "why crisis management and social media must co-exist," and interview with Cindy Lawson. See resource list at bottom of posting.]
How can engaging alumni through social media and email help an institution during a media crisis? The alumni & parent relations staff at Reed College believes that doing so is beneficial, perhaps integral.
This past spring, two Reed College students died. While the circumstances of the deaths differed from one another, the college found itself the focus of local, then national media attention. The story had numerous twists and turns, and lasted for several news cycles.
- During spring break, 2010, a student was found dead in her dorm. The coroner did not immediately list a cause of death, but ruled out illegal drugs or alcohol.
- Shortly after spring break ended, a student living off campus died of an accidental heroin overdose.
- Prior to the annual year-end student party (known as Renn Fayre), Reed College president Colin Diver was called into a meeting by the County district attorney and the U.S. attorney for Oregon, and was told that undercover law enforcement agents would likely be present at the upcoming party.
- The first death generated local news coverage. The second death resulted in local as well as national attention. The action of the U.S. attorney and the County DA created national headlines (see links at the end of this article).
There are many nuances and additional elements to this story, but here we're focusing on the role of social media and alumni relations in the crisis-communication process.
We believe that informing alumni promptly through email, Facebook, and Twitter and getting ahead of the mainstream news media aided the college in managing the message and the public discourse online.
Key elements included:
Access to Information: In situations like ours, what is known and what can be shared are often different. Student privacy is paramount, and the college cannot (appear to) be insensitive to this. Still, as soon as a death occurs and the coroner is called, it becomes a public story. And as soon as the public relations staff become involved, the alumni relations team needs to be brought in to help disseminate information.
Delegation: It can be challenging when, in the institution at large, there is a lack of consensus about how to respond to the crisis, along with widely divergent levels of comfort with digital communications. In a small college, no single office is equipped to handle all the related issues, so the alumni office must be empowered to share information (with appropriate approvals) and respond to alumni questions.
Empowerment: By the same token, it helps to empower the alumni as well, arming them with invaluable information to use in their own conversations with others. Our alumni added salient comments to the online mix, becoming our best advocates, and we believe they benefited from having the full spectrum of documentation available via our news feed.
Timeliness: Getting ahead of the news cycle is hard, but sharing information promptly engenders good will, provides context, and creates an "information posse" that can work to your favor when the inevitable online comments appear following a story.
Persistent monitoring: As the stories are posted and reposted, it is important to monitor what is said and, to the extent possible, who is saying it. It was quite validating to see loyal alumni chiming in and sharing a perspective that staff cannot offer. In fact, the most popular link we reposted was a letter from two young alumnae to the New York Times, that served as an astute rebuttal to an earlier article.
From the first publication through the last related posting from us, this crisis communications effort occupied nearly four weeks. It was rewarding to know, to arm, to answer, and finally to trust our alumni audience, so that they could engage others and be the institution's best advocates in the larger community – online, as well as face to face.
An Intervention at Reed (from Inside Higher Ed, 26 April, 2010)
Reed College's President Is Told to Crack Down on Campus Drug Use (NY Times, 26 April, 2010)
Drug Use at Reed College (Letter to Editor, NY Times, 4 May, 2010)
Confronting Drug Abuse at Reed (by the editor of Reed College Magazine)
U.S. Attorney's Letter to Reed College... (from The Oregonian, 4 May, 2010)
Favorite Traditions (from Reed College Admission Office web site)
Why Crisis Management and Social Media Must Co-Exist
Interview with Crisis Communications Expert Cindy Lawson (from Academic Impressions)