How to handle campus crises in the digital age

Benton says media outlets often exacerbate campus crises.

Pepperdine University President Andrew Benton told higher-education officials March 7 in Washington, D.C. that they should be wary of contact with journalists covering campus emergencies such as fires and shootings. Instead, Benton said, students should rely solely on the university for updated information.

Benton spoke at the American Council on Education’s (ACE) Annual Meeting at the Washington Hilton during a session called, “Leading Through Crises in the Digital Age.”

Mass text messages, eMail alerts, and phone calls to students and faculty members have become key in response to campus emergencies, but Benton said assuring students that school officials will provide up-to-the-minute information on what to do during a crisis should be a top priority for decision makers in charge of planning for emergencies.

“The difficulty is getting [the media] to speak truthfully,” he said. “They work on rumor and innuendo. … We want them to calm things down rather than roil them up.”

Pepperdine University, an isolated 830-acre campus in Malibu – 45 minutes from the nearest hospital – has been plagued by wildfires that burn in the mountainous region every six or seven year, Benton said.

Pepperdine officials have laid out detailed plans for how to protect the campus community when fires approach the school. Using the Everbridge Aware campus alert system, notifications are sent to students, faculty, and their parents via text message, eMail, phone, and instant messenger.

“We can’t count on the press,” he said. “We can count on the press to relay the wrong things. … Our campus is an island of calm because we know what we’re doing.”

Benton added that media outlets “try to gin up fear” with newspaper, TV, and online stories run during and immediately following an emergency.