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.

Benton said the university has found ways to help parents circumvent media coverage of school emergencies. Parents worrying about their children while Malibu wildfires rage near the 2,100-student campus can now watch a live stream of the school via web cam.

Kevin Ross, president of Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., spoke during the session about his experience relaying information to parents, students, and faculty members when a dozen students and instructors were in Haiti during that country’s devastating January 2010 earthquake.

Providing updated information to campus community members, Ross said, should take priority over sharing the updates with journalists reporting on the emergency.

Many times during the three weeks of tracking down Lynn students and faculty who were in Haiti, campus officials had no updates to share with anyone.

“The media wanted more and more, and oftentimes we had nothing to tell them,” he said. “That was a challenge, trying to keep them at bay.”

Ross said intermittent updates coming from Haiti – where internet and phone connections were unreliable at best – included good news that several students had been found and were being flown back to Florida.

Ross had to tell parents later that the news had proved to be misinformation, and those students had not been flown back home. Six students and faculty died in the earthquake.

“It made what was a terrible tragedy even worse,” he said. “It was the world’s cruelest joke twice.”

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