Tech to the Rescue

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    Text messages warn students, spread crisis response advice

    In May of last year, Boston residents were plunged into the midst of their own crisis when a major water pipe burst, disrupting water service and potentially contaminating public water sources. Luckily for residents, local officials were prepared, and spread the word quickly using various technologies combined with word of mouth.

    One of the strongest responses came from nearby Tufts University, which chose to focus on the use of text messaging to keep students and faculty informed. In an article for the KevinMD blog, Tufts teacher Lisa Gualtieri, PhD, ScM, described the tactics used:

    While Tufts considered preparing messages in advance, it didn’t seem possible to anticipate every situation. Instead they created “Strunk and White” guidelines for crisis communication. Their three guiding principles for creating initial messages are:

    1. What is happening
    2. What you need to know
    3. Where to go for more information

    Messages must be succinct because of cell phone screen size and to increase the likelihood people read them, avoid jargon and abbreviations, and be composed for easy conversion into speech. While the Tufts community is tech-savvy, they are aware that not everyone is connected all the time therefore some messaging includes spreading the word. For many emergencies, especially life-threatening ones like violent criminal incident or tornado warning, content is pre-scripted by Tufts using sources such as the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

    Other public offices used Twitter and Facebook to great effect, but Tufts maintains an actual phone listing of students, and, with the chances of a college student being more than one square foot away from their cell phone being approximately zero, that technology makes for a very powerful crisis management tool.

    For more resources, see the Free Management Library topic: Crisis Management

    [Jonathan Bernstein is president of Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc. , an international crisis management consultancy, and author of Keeping the Wolves at Bay – Media Training.]