Written by Bob Armstrong, Director of Emergency Management, Ohio State University
"Thinking Outside the Box" to Better Communicate with 100,000+ Students, Faculty, Staff and Visitors
As a higher education emergency management professional, we have a responsibility to communicate quickly and effectively with our campus community in an emergency, but… are we doing enough?
Defining Our Audience
Just like every other college or university campus, we are continually looking for ways to improve the OSU crisis communication plan.
Too often, we define our “campus community” as being our students, faculty, and staff, thus frequently overlooking other groups. For instance, contractors and vendors may be on campus several times a week (i.e. construction crews, contracted janitorial staff or elevator repairmen), and visitors to our campuses can include potential future students and parents, conference attendees, guest lecturers, hospital visitors and summer camp attendees.
Reputational Risk Management
Campus visitors and service contractors must be part of the OSU crisis communication plan. Leaving these groups of people to fend for themselves, or expecting a staff/faculty member to serve as a “liaison” in an emergency situation, can place you and your campus at risk of negative press. As we all have learned, Reputational Risk is a very real concern for campus leadership. Including visitors, contractors and others in your mass communication system will help to reduce your reputational risk and instill a sense of safety & security with potential future students and parents.
Expanding the OSU Crisis Communication Plan
We need to have the ability to communicate directly with visiting groups or individuals on campus to provide them the same information and the same instructions we are extending to the rest of our community. Ideally, we could accomplish this without any extra steps or work on our part during the emergency.
Utilizing the keyword SMS opt-in option on your ENS is a quick and easy solution. At Ohio State University, we have keywords that visitors (like potential future students and parents) can use to register for our ENS. These visitors can opt-in for one day or three days, which covers anyone attending a conference, conducting a campus visit or participating in a meeting on campus. If they will be on campus for longer than three days, they can simply re-subscribe for an additional time period. Our event planning professional staff shares this information with anyone reserving space in our various public-meeting rooms.
Ohio State University also has keywords designated for our campers and contractors to register for a 30-day or 90-day emergency alert system subscription. This keyword information is included in our vendor contracts or provided to camp leadership to share with the camp staff and parents.
SMS Opt-In For Non-Emergency Communication
As we began to share this information with our campus, we have had multiple campus groups ask for their own keyword for non-ENS related messages. Our Medical Center will be utilizing several keywords to alert Medical Center leadership, facilities staff and others of power outages in the Medical Center buildings, elevator outages, water interruptions, and so on. Utilizing the keyword SMS opt-in functionality allows select Medical Center personnel to select the notifications they want to receive and which ones they don’t – without Emergency Management staff having to manually maintain the lists.
SMS Opt-In For Specialty Events
Finally, we will be utilizing the keyword opt-in for special events like our Autumn student move-in day. Parents can sign up utilizing a keyword that will allow them to be a part of our emergency notification system for 18 hours. Meanwhile, our Student Life staff will utilize the system to communicate any urgent messages that could impact their move-in experience and we (Emergency Management) will use it to share any severe weather or other alert-related information.
Thinking Outside The Box
I hate the saying “think outside the box” but in this case, it rings true. We have a responsibility to ensure our entire campus community is included in the OSU crisis communication plan. Be creative. Find ways to use existing systems to accomplish this. It will reduce your level of reputational risk, increase your ability to communicate to a wider audience, increase the sense of safety among non-affiliates, and make your team look great in the eyes of leadership.