Communicating During a Crisis

Communication during a crisis: A guide for departments

This is intended to provide general guidance related to communications for Humboldt State departments during campus emergencies and crises.

All departments at HSU utilize various communications tools on a daily basis: email, social media, websites, word of mouth. These are used for a wide range of communications, some quite casual. There is plenty of room for error and adjustment, and the cost of day-to-day miscommunication is generally low.

This changes during an emergency or crisis. During these times, the use of communications tools must be more deliberate, both at the University-wide level and at the department level.  The risks of poor communication become much more significant - including threats to life and health, damage to property, and legal liability. Additional care is needed in order to avoid causing harm unwillingly, and often the approaches can seem non-intuitive, overly institutional, or slow.

If your area is directly involved in a campus emergency or crisis situation, you can seek guidance by contacting the University’s Emergency Operations Center at 826-4635. For communications advice in an emergency or crisis, you can contact Marketing & Communications at 826-3390.

Overview

During and emergency or crisis - a fire, earthquake, extended power outage, etc. -  the primary goal of University communication is providing timely information that helps to protect life and property. The main audience is individuals most likely to be directly affected. Secondary goals include rumor control and providing updated information to others connected to the institution, such as students and faculty not directly affected,  and to the general public.

Normal communication practice ends when an emergency or crisis unfolds. The University utilizes a standardized Emergency Operations system, with units across campus participating in specific roles. During an emergency operation, mass communications to on- and off-campus audiences utilizes time-tested procedures and protocols to ensure that verifiable, timely information is released.

Information that is released during an emergency or crisis will be verified in multiple ways before it is released. This may lead to information being released more slowly than some prefer. The exception is when life or property are in imminent danger, in which case multiple offices on campus are empowered to communicate as quickly as possible.

In an emergency operation, more than one organization may be involved (such as HSU and Arcata Police Department). In these cases, one organization will serve as the lead. All other organizations participating in responding to an incident will rely on that agency to guide communications work.

For emergency and crisis communications, simple is better. Key messages and facts will be repeated often, and the number of official communication channels will be limited.

During an emergency or crisis, the media is utilized as much as possible to extend the reach of official communications.  

University-level Communications During a Crisis

Marketing & Communications staff serve as the Public Information Team during a crisis or emergency, and serves as the single point of contact for official information . This team takes direction from the Incident Commander.

For simplicity and clarity, a small number of communications tools are used. These are: www.humboldt.edu, HSU Alert by text and email, 826-INFO (4636), and updates on KHSU.  The goal is to provide frequent updates.

Social media channels are used primarily to direct individuals to official crisis and emergency communications channels. In addition, social media is monitored for rumors, concerns, and new information.

General templates and approaches are developed for a variety of emergency scenarios, providing a starting point in an actual incident. In addition, Marketing & Communications staff educate themselves and prepare for communications needs related to specific types of situations (including sexual assault, suicide, protests, and others).

Best Practices for Department-level Communications During a Crisis

  • Remember that you are an official HSU department. This is not from you. When you communicate information using department social media, email or other channels, you are doing so as a representative of the University. You want to avoid making mistakes or spreading rumors in the midst of a crisis.
  • Please rely on official channels.  Let officials do their job. By sidestepping protocol, you could be harming the public good,  defaming someone, or propagating inaccurate reports.  If your unit is going to share critical information during a crisis, please relay statements available from Humboldt.edu.
  • More communication is different than good communication.  While your intention may be pure, you can actually cause harm by oversharing. Misinformation and rumor are predictable byproducts during any crisis. Do not inadvertently propagate rumors. Patience is essential.  
  • Know your audience. During a crisis, your normally quiet Facebook page could suddenly experience immense traffic, especially if the situation affects your department. News media can, and have, taken comments posted on department social media and attributed them to the University as official communication.
  • Communicate clear, basic facts. If you’re relying on official sources, this will be easier. If you need to use verified information as part of an announcement - like classes being cancelled in your department -  do so simply and concisely.
  • You’re not a reporter. Communication is deceptively complex, and social media is a powerful tool. Sharing something with the best of intentions could expose you legally. Defamation, panic, privacy violations, and other negative outcomes can spawn from a simple re-Tweet.
  • Monitor Social Media. If you see something, say something. Imminent threats should be shared directly with University Police Department. Other unconfirmed information should be shared with Marketing & Communications.

And before an incident…

Sign up for text alerts and learn more about getting timely information at www.humboldt.edu/emergency

Relay any account passwords to Marketing & Communications. Phones get lost. Hackers do what they do. Your 5-year old might delete your department’s Facebook page when you’re not looking. Marcom can be your safety net.

Review information about how HSU responds during an emergency at http://risksafety.humboldt.edu/emergency-management

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