By Mary Kate McGrath - August 3, 2020
In an increasingly complex risk environment - with active shooter risks, a worsening student mental health crisis, and the onset of COVID-19, it’s more critical than ever for administrators to raise campus community awareness around mass notification. A mass notification system allows campus safety managers to engage your community and keep them safe, easily send notifications in a matter of seconds to students, faculty, or staff, and maximize and extend technology to keep emergency communications on the cutting edge even amid budget tightening.
However, taking full advantage of mass notification relies on community engagement. Administrators should conduct outreach initiatives, including spreading the word on social media, making the system part of orientation presentations, and enlisting student ambassadors.
In June of 2019, a survey of higher education institutions revealed that colleges don’t use mass notification systems to full potential, with over half (62%) of colleges or universities not offering a mobile safety app to students and nearly half (45%) or respondents looking to expand their mobile capabilities. Gen Z students are digital natives, and meeting them where they are by expanding community awareness of mass notification and integrated communication systems is a powerful way to engage this demographic. For this reason, a campus safety app can be one medium to ensure that students are interacting with a variety of safety resources, from an anonymous two-way tip texting tool to the database of wellness or mental health resources on campus.
Administrators can also implement a year-round marketing plan, continuing to raise awareness throughout the academic year, not just during orientation sessions. Freshman or transfer orientation sessions are a great opportunity to offer a primer on your institution’s mass notification system, but also occur during a period where students are inundated with information. Instead of relying solely on these sessions, consider multiple sessions to continue to optimize usage throughout the year.
First, colleges and universities should take advantage of social media to spread the word. In 2018, a Knight Foundation survey found that 89% of college-age students get at least some of their news from social media, with Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube among the most popular platforms, as per EducationDive. Since many students likely already follow their college or university social media accounts, administrators should take advantage of these platforms not only to post notifications and alerts, but also to raise awareness about the system and where these messages are coming from. Regular updates and reminders about the mass notification system will bolster trust and awareness, especially among students.
Get student ambassadors to spread the word, whether they are orientation leaders or residence hall assistants, to help raise awareness about your university mass notification system. Orientation leaders can make sure to check in with new students, ensure that they’re signed up for emergency alerts and know to take advantage of any campus safety apps. Meanwhile, residence hall assistants can both check in with students throughout the year. These individuals can also put signage up around community spaces and dormitories, posting informational fliers in high-traffic areas. For colleges and universities looking to further spread awareness through flyering, another option is to send informational booklets to student, faculty, or staff mail addresses.
Leverage student media organizations - such as newspapers, TV stations, or radio shows - to see if they’d be willing to run public service announcements about the mass notification system. Once again, if the suggestion is coming from a student organization, it lends credibility to the system. Therefore, users are more likely to trust the news coming from the source, which is critical during an emergency situation. If the college or university is part of the local community, contacting local media outlets, such as small-town newspapers or community television stations, might also be away to encourage engagement with the mass notification system.
If possible, using a giveaway or sweepstakes around opting-in for emergency alerts is another way to encourage sign-ups. For example, a campus safety team could enter all students, faculty, or staff who sign-up for emergency alerts into a raffle, and the prize can be a useful gift for life on campus, such as an Amazon or Barnes & Noble bookstore gift card. Offering a fun incentive - which can be advertised via flyers or during orientation - can be a fun, once-a-year strategy to boost engagement and awareness of the system.
One essential strategy for keeping students, faculty, and staff, engaged with your emergency alert system year-round is to avoid alert fatigue. Students, especially Gen Z students who are tuned into the Internet, are receiving many notifications over the course of a day. Administrators should try to only use the mass notification system to communicate essential information. Also, running routine tests for the system, so community members understand what these messages will look like upon receival can also avoid burnout.
SMS Opt-In is another feature that can be leveraged to increase the reach of a mass notification system, while avoiding alert fatigue. For example, an administrator could set a keyword to “COVID” to provide students, teachers, and faculty with updates on the fall semester amid the ever-developing conditions caused by the coronavirus pandemic. By creating separate keywords for individual events or needs, campus safety managers can prevent the alert fatigue, and avoid diminishing attention and trust in critical notifications.
Mary Kate is a content specialist and social media manager for the Rave Mobile Safety team. She writes about public safety for the state & local and education spheres.
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