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Crisis Management on Campuses in the Age of Social Media

The rise of Facebook and Twitter have made crisis management harder than ever for institutions, companies, and individuals, according to a new book by a professor at Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi. What’s essential, she says, is making a plan before you need it.

Michelle Maresh-Fuehrer

Michelle Maresh-Fuehrer (Texas A&M U. at Corpus Christi photo)

Michelle Maresh-Fuehrer, author of Creating Organizational Crisis Plans, says she wrote for a broad range of readers—all of whom, she says, can develop crisis plans without spending thousands of dollars.

Ms. Maresh-Fuehrer, an assistant professor of communication, teaches a course on emergency crisis management that’s required for the public-relations minor.

Wired Campus asked Ms. Maresh-Fuehrer what lessons her research holds for college, universities, and others. Here’s an edited transcript of the conversation:

Q. How has social media changed the way businesses and universities react during crises?

A. Social media has made it different in two kinds of ways.

The first way is, anyone can become an activist and can get a big group of supporters with just a tweet or just a Facebook status. All it takes is a couple people to get together, and all of a sudden you have power.

And the other thing is, organizations are being held more liable now with what they’re doing because of that public eye that comes with Facebook and Twitter. It’s gotten to the point that people are starting to realize the power they have, and they’re using it—that company’s going to be held more liable by more people now than they would have been in the past. Now people who might not even do business with them want to know what they’re going to say.

The importance of being able to respond effectively has grown. The time you have to respond before before it gets out of control has lessened.

Q. What’s your top recommendation for successful crisis management?

A. Researching your stakeholders’ expectations of you and knowing that, whatever those expectations are, any violation of that can become a crisis. For instance, from a school’s perspective, knowing everybody wants to feel safe—your faculty, your students, your administration. Everyone wants to be in a harassment-free environment, so you want to make sure those values become your values.

Q. What institution do you think has transformed the way we think of crisis management?

A. As a whole, I think Virginia Tech kind of led the way for everybody. They had a remarkable communication system in place for that crisis. I remember still being a student in my Ph.D. program and thinking, “Wow, they did a fantastic job.” I don’t think I would have known at that time how to handle that.

They’ve paved the way with text messaging and e-mails. It is very important to our universities to make sure you’re safe and you know what to do [during an emergency]. I think students are really buying into that and starting to care more. A lot of students say, “Oh, I want to opt out of that code-blue thing, like I don’t want to get a text message if it’s raining.” And I’m like, “Well, think about it. It’s for your safety.” Now I don’t hear that resistance as much.

Q. Any advice for those just getting started?

A. Having something as simple as a contact list of just your employees, and also of nearby things that could be affected by a crisis, like all the hospitals in the area. If a school has 30,000 students, and a bunch of them get hurt or something, you’re going to need more than one hospital. Also, have a list of all the news stations, so you can call them first and not have them wondering what happened. Something as simple as that is huge, and some people don’t think to do it until it’s too late.

Q. Are there any models that you think went above and beyond, and handled a crisis or potential crisis very well?

A. I will forever think Domino’s Pizza is on their game. It’s the funniest thing, but they created a whole campaign around a complaint. And they are so transparent with their Twitter. On their Web site, boom, there’s the Twitter feed down the side and the minute anyone says, “I don’t know. Your pizza still tastes like cardboard to me,” they’re like, “We are on it. What store did you buy that from?”

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