R u texting during crises?

Universities, governments, others adopt text messaging software for crisis communication.

Universities, governments, others adopt text messaging software for crisis communication

The recent shootings that killed five at Northern Illinois University highlights the need for immediate communication during a crisis. Some universities have turned to text messaging software to get this done. Colleges across the United States have purchased systems that allow them to send thousands of text messages at once to students and faculty—among the schools to do this is the University of Illinois (U of I), which has more than 43,000 graduate and undergraduate students.
Choose from six tracks at the 17th annual conference for every communicator. The 2008 Corporate Communicators Conference, May 7-9, Chicago

The University of Illinois’ emergency communication system went live in October 2007. It allows officials at the university to send tens of thousands of text, voice and e-mail messages to students, staff and faculty members instantly.

The U of I purchased its system from the suburban-Chicago-based Mutare Software. The company’s Richard Quattrocchi walked me through the system. What I discovered from his tutorial is corporate communicators can adopt this software for any number of reasons. Alerting employees at one location of an imminent natural disaster—like the California wildfires, for instance—or, worse, notifying workers of a violence incident in the workplace are two uses.

Of course, it needn’t be this severe. If an important article or bit of information was posted to the company intranet, communicators could direct employees there with text messages. And there are always fun uses of this technology—like alerting employees to an impromptu office gathering.

The possibilities are endless and, thankfully, the Mutare software is “so easy even a U.S. senator can use it,” Quattrocchi joked.

Sending a message to thousands with the touch of a button

Quattrocchi assured me he wasn’t knocking the U.S. Senate, just touting his software’s ease of use. “It allows a broadcaster to rapidly and very easily send a message to tens of thousands of people with literally a touch of a button,” he said.

The software is accessible via phone or computer. If an emergency occurs, a message can be sent immediately: A person with access to the system can log onto the computer software, select a preloaded list of contacts, type in the message, choose which methods to send the message through and click to initiate.

In a matter of minutes—even seconds—the messages are sent to everyone on the contact list.

“If you can perform a Google search,” Quattrocchi said, “you can use this software.”

The system contains an unlimited number of contacts, and it can send messages using up to five methods (for example, text message, voicemail, e-mail, PDA, pagers, etc.). For text messages, the system advises inputting no more than 140 characters. For e-mails, the number of characters is limitless.

Quattrocchi demonstrated this for me; he put my cell phone information into a demo program and typed a test message. In seconds I received a phone call with an electronic voice stating the message, as well as a text message.

If the person sending the message isn’t near a computer, he or she can also call into the system and go through these steps. Instead of typing the message, the person speaks it. That message can then be converted to text.

Because the U.S. Senate is one of Mutare’s clients, the company gave each senator a card for his or her wallet that explains how to call the system and begin sending the messages.

(A common question communicators face is what constitutes an emergency? The answer, I learned, is largely subjective, although violence and natural disasters certainly meet the criteria.)

Finding the right vendor proved problematic

At the University of Illinois, the desire for a more prompt system of emergency notification was heightened after the Virginia Tech shootings when an Illinois graduate student launched a petition on Facebook urging the school’s chancellor to find an appropriate emergency notification system. The petition collected more than 1,155 signatures. Although the Mutare system launched at the university in October 2007, the school’s director of public affairs, Robin Kaler, told me the university had explored new platforms for emergency communications long before the events at Virginia Tech. Finding a company to meet the school’s needs proved problematic, however.

Some vendors offered the service for free, but in return they wanted to send advertising messages to students and staff. “The very clear message that we got from students’ informal discussions was, ‘If you start sending me advertisements, I’m going to block the number,’” said Mark Briggs, the university’s risk manager.

Mutare does not send advertising messages.

Gerald Baron, a longtime crisis communicator and founder of Pier Systems, echoed these sentiments. “I have talked to a number of university leaders and all have commented on how they have been inundated with pitches [from vendors]—many of them distasteful in light of the tragic circumstances,” Baron wrote on his blog Crisisblogger.

Pier Systems, like Mutare, provides platforms and strategies for crisis communications, including text message alerts.

I also spoke with a communicator at the University of Minnesota which recently adopted emergency text messaging and he said that school’s system cost just under $10,000 annually.

The pitfalls of mass emergency communication

One pitfall of emergency communications is relying on a single platform to deliver a message. For example, adopting a program that communicates entirely via text messaging has its hazards, the obvious one being that (believe it or not) not everyone has a cell phone. Someone may simply forget their cell phone, or have turned his or her cell phone off during class. More worrisome is that cell phone providers can grow overwhelmed quickly with the volume of calls during a crisis.

“During an emergency, phone systems are the first to fall apart,” Quattrocchi said. Phone messages may fail to go through, because everyone is trying to make a call when disaster strikes. Text messages often bypass this congestion, he noted, which is something Mutare found during Hurricane Katrina. One of the company’s corporate clients was able to notify its employees through text messages.

However, because no system is foolproof, crisis communicators like Quattrocchi and Baron advocate the use of numerous channels. As I learned from Quattrocchi’s demonstration, in a matter of seconds I was hit with two messages on my cell phone. This could have been expanded to several more channels of communication. Along with cell phone, I could have received the same message on my home phone, e-mail and pager.

University of Illinois adopts the multichannel approach

“We think that the emergency messaging system is going to enhance our ability to contact a large number of people quickly, but no one system is going to reach everyone,” school’s director of public safety Krystal Fitzpatrick told the campus community in October.

“We have a multitude of avenues for reaching people, and the messaging system is just one component of the campus emergency communications strategy that includes disseminating information through mass e-mail, a telephone tree, local radio and television stations.”

Pop-ups also appear on computers that are part of the university’s network when an emergency message goes out.

Baron described the ideal emergency notification system as one that feeds the hunger for information as opposed to stifling it. A 140-character text message, he said, is an important way to immediately notify members of your organization about an emergency. However, once that brief message is sent there must be constant follow-up communication.

“Don’t think that communications end once you trigger the siren,” Baron wrote. “Now the real work begins.”

Virginia Tech a ‘wake-up call’

Quattrocchi said Mutare, a company that was around before 9/11, has received a flood of interest since the Virginia Tech shootings.

That tragedy was the “wake-up call,” he explained, for universities and other organizations to find better ways to communicate during a crisis.

Corporations are also heeding this call, Quattrocchi noted. GE is currently Mutare’s biggest customer. Many more corporations also are putting this system into place, he continued, including companies in the retail, financial and manufacturing industries.

As more unfortunate incidents occur, the ability to send messages to members of your organizations will become more of a necessity. There are many vendors able to provide service, but finding the right one and then ensuring you have adequate balance for all your communication channels is the next challenge.

Crisis communication put to the test

Much like the Virginia Tech tragedy, communication became a large part of the story of the recent shootings at Northern Illinois University (NIU).

Unlike Virginia Tech, pundits and experts have praised NIU for prompt and effective communication during the crisis. The hallmarks of this swift communication include published reports that university officials alerted the campus community of the shooting with an e-mail and voicemail message, along with messages posted to the NIU Web site. Officials at the university reportedly revamped the school’s crisis plan after the Virginia Tech tragedy.

USA Today noted that NIU does have a text message alert system; however, it is only used to inform IT staff of a computer crash. There was at least one report quoting students criticizing the university’s response and indicating it wasn’t fast enough. That report said word about the shooting spread fast among students because they were updating each other with text messages.

Here is a timeline from Feb. 14 highlighting the NIU crisis response.

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