Crisis Communications 10 Years After the Texas A&M Bonfire

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This week saw the 10-year anniversary of the tragic 1999 bonfire collapse that killed 12 students at Texas A&M University. At the time Cindy Lawson, the university's executive director of university relations, deployed the university website to relay timely and accurate information to the campus community, and worked proactively with the media to direct the public to the website. A first adopter of the web as a key media relations channel, Lawson ensured that in the wake of the tragedy the university became the primary disseminator of information.

The communications landscape has changed rapidly in the past decade, and we asked Cindy Lawson, now assistant to the chancellor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, to comment on how the growth of social media may impact crisis communications today, and how media relations professionals can best prepare for that impact.

The Dangers of Social Media in a Crisis

"Ten years ago, I had to worry about 300 plus media who were at the site, as well as students or bystanders who might engage in a discussion with media. Today, everyone has a cell phone, everyone can text, everyone can take photos or videos, and everyone has the ability to easily post them real-time to sites that can disseminate messages within minutes easily all over the world."
Cindy Lawson, University of North Carolina Wilmington

With the explosion of social media technology, the opportunity for misinformation and rumor to spread rapidly can be challenging. How can you control or manage messaging in the event of a crisis, when anyone can immediately tweet information or upload video footage? Lawson remembers an individual 10 years ago who informed her of an unsubstantiated rumor that some University of Texas students had caused the collapse. Nothing could have been further from the truth. "I was one of a handful of individuals who had heard that information, and because it was not substantiated I did not disseminate it. But think about how quickly that false rumor could, and probably would have, spread in today's world of social media."

"Not only do you have issues in controlling the messages that get disseminated through social media," Lawson warns, "but the messages can become a crisis in and of themselves." In the case of the Mumbai terror attack, several people still in the hotels who had barricaded themselves inside hotel rooms were texting messages to friends and family, letting them know that they were alive and where they were -- even what rooms they were in. Lawson recalls, "That message got disseminated and soon the media had it. If the perpetrators were watching television or social media sites, they would have known exactly where the people were."

"It is incumbent on university leaders to prepare for the impact social media can have on a crisis."
Cindy Lawson, University of North Carolina Wilmington

Take A Proactive Approach

"You can deploy social media outlets as part of your crisis response," Lawson advises, recommending that institutions develop their own social networking accounts. Just as 10 years ago Texas A&M ensured that its website was the most trusted and easily visible information source, institutions today need to ensure that their social media channels become trusted and visible information sources -- before a crisis occurs. If your institution builds a following on the major social media sites, then you can use those social networking tools as communications vehicles for the same messages you will be distributing to traditional media outlets.

"You can't wait until the crisis hits. You have to start building now. Are your communications interesting enough and frequent enough and informative enough to be an effective communications tool not only to your students and members of your campus community, but also to all of your internal and external stakeholders?"
Cindy Lawson, University of North Carolina Wilmington

Identify Students Who Can Be "Eyes and Ears"

In a crisis, you will need not only administrative and faculty representatives speaking to the media, but also expert users of social media who can use those tools on your behalf. Lawson recommends training a cadre of students who can become the institution's "eyes and ears and voices" on social networking sites. "These individuals can be your on-the-scene reporters, sharing their perspectives, texting to their friends. Because you have selected and prepared them ahead of time, they will be the voices on social media sites least likely to spread messages in a way that could harm the response and recovery, harm the families of victims who may be involved in the crisis, or harm the institution by false information and rumors."

Lawson recommends looking for students who are already actively and conscientiously involved in serving as voices for your campus, or students who are developing expertise in communications. For example, you could tap:

  • Individuals in the student government
  • Peer leaders trained to give campus tours
  • Interns who are communications majors

"These same students," Lawson adds, "can scan social media sites for false information and alert your communications staff." 10 years ago, institutions only needed to monitor traditional media outlets; now institutions need to also keep an eye on what misinformation (and fault-finding, in the event of a crisis) may be proliferating on blogs and social media sites.

"The old adage that either you tell your story or it is going to be told for you is even more relevant today in the world of social media. If institutions are not seriously considering social media tools for both monitoring and disseminating information, it will be even more difficult for them to tell their own story or to manage crisis communications effectively."
Cindy Lawson, University of North Carolina Wilmington