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When ‘Like’ Meets Loss
When ‘Like’ Meets Loss

How social media can support a campus community in mourning

By Donna Talarico


Aad Goudappel



Social media is changing not only how people live but also how they grieve. In 2016, fans of David Bowie and Prince flocked to Twitter and Facebook to mourn the music icons' deaths—the artists became trending topics on various social channels—and to start the collective grieving process.

This kind of communal bereavement is now expected. When Michael Jackson died in June 2009, the news nearly broke the internet. But mourning death online and on social media, known as thanatechnology, isn't restricted to celebrity deaths.

Facebook allows users to have their accounts memorialized when they die, giving their friends and families a place to perpetually "gather and share memories." Psychological experts view this as a double-edged sword, particularly for young people. Social channels can provide a virtual support network and help people process their grief. But this kind of digital immortality—the ability to interact with profiles their loved ones left behind—may prevent some people from accepting their loss and the finality of death.

When a college student dies, what is the institution's role on its social media channels?

Message with care

An institution's crisis communication plan should include social media. It's important to discuss how these platforms may be used before a situation occurs. Twitter, Facebook, and other channels should not, for instance, be the primary source of information, but they are useful for providing updates and spreading news, such as communicating whether the campus is safe and directing people to a university website to learn more about unfolding events. Brief messages like these assure people that more information is coming. They can also reassure friends and family members who do not receive the campus's emergency notifications.

But when dealing with student deaths, campus communicators recommend evaluating circumstances on a case-by-case basis. Rachel Reuben, a higher education communications consultant in New York, helps clients develop crisis communication plans and says there's no template for handling a student death—too many nuances make it impossible to have a "one-size-fits-all best practice."

Pacific University's guidelines for communicating about a death discuss posting on social media only "as appropriate" and note that the situation around each death will be different. The Oregon institution's procedures also state that "respectful and timely communication is critical" but that the "wishes of the family should be paramount."

Therein lies one of the many tension points in communicating about student deaths in general, and on social media in particular. A deceased student's family and the institution can agree upon what information may or may not be shared, but that doesn't prevent others from commenting, asking questions, or sharing what they know (or think they know) on social media channels—sometimes placing the institution in a difficult position.

Deaths by suicide or accidental overdose are among the most sensitive cases. In such situations, Dave Tyler, senior manager of digital and social media at The College at Brockport, State University of New York, uses direct messages to confidentially reach out to people who post questions or comments about an incident to explain the family's wishes for privacy. Reuben also suggests having a skilled communicator from student affairs explain to family members why being forthcoming about their son's or daughter's death can help the campus community heal and persuade other students who may be experiencing challenges or struggling with their feelings to open up. "A lot of parents don't know about the tight bonds their child is developing at college," she says. They may not understand "that the student had another family."

Sharing the caring

One category of information is always appropriate to share following a student death: mental health resources. Encouraging people to seek counseling and to support one another can help a campus community cope with the emotions and difficulties triggered by such a loss.

"We work closely with the dean of students to determine the appropriate level and types of communication," says Joe Lang, director of media relations at Pacific University, "but in all of them we articulate compassion and support, including the counseling resources that are available not only for students but also for faculty and staff."

In September 2012, the dorm room murder of freshman Alexandra Kogut by her hometown boyfriend shocked The College at Brockport. The campus used social media, email, emergency communication channels, and the college's news site to communicate about student safety. Later, Tyler's team directed people to counseling resources and promoted a memorial service and other remembrance events through social channels. While a campus's official communications often call for a just-the-facts approach, Tyler says that doesn't always work on social channels. He looks for ways "not to sound like a machine when we communicate," such as employing active voice, using conversational language, and avoiding jargon. You can keep your community informed, he says, and show them that you, too, are experiencing the difficult feelings that they're facing.

Sometimes a simple image can encapsulate a campus's grief. A late-night car crash in April 2016 killed four University of Georgia students, an unprecedented tragedy for the campus. A large gray bow was placed on the university's historic iron arch to symbolize the sorrow felt across the institution. "The location became a place for people to gather, mourn, and support each other," says Karri Hobson-Pape, vice president of communications and marketing at UGA. Her team created a graphic depiction of the honored space and posted it to the university's social channels. Followers shared it across several platforms.

"Social media allows us to quickly connect with others [who are experiencing similar feelings] in ways that traditional means couldn't," says Joe Mazer, director of Clemson University's Center for Social Media Listening in South Carolina. Social media can "unite the student body when they need it the most," he adds.

Tyler witnessed this at Brockport. "By sharing a picture of Alex Kogut's initials on the football field's 50-yard line, we let our community have a forum to share their thoughts, concerns, and remembrances, so it was a coping mechanism as much as anything."

Social media is a tool to engage with the institution's community, and standing by it in tough times matters.

"When there's an outpouring on social media, it's important to let people know that the university cares," says Lang at Pacific. "Showing them that you recognize what the community is going through and that the campus is there to support them with resources can provide comfort."

Listen up for clues and cues

Communicators can't quell rumors they don't know about, which is why social listening is crucial. "People will wonder, speculate, and construct their own conclusion" when information is lacking, Mazer says. Misinformation can spread rapidly, he adds, often perpetuated by alarmed parents who will "pick up on any nugget" of information. It's important to know what's being said about the situation and the institution.

"Whether it's a crisis or just everyday social media interaction, the value of social listening cannot be overstated. You have to take the pulse of your community," Tyler says, adding that a good community manager will already have an indication of what the audience needs. "That [knowledge] can help you make a better decision about how you're going to handle a crisis" because every circumstance is different.

But a student death can be tricky and even frustrating for the people managing and monitoring social media, Reuben says, because they often are "several layers removed from decisions on what can be communicated." Supervisors should empower social media managers to share what they're seeing with the appropriate parties, Reuben suggests. She also recommends that social media become part of the culture of any campuswide crisis communication team—and that communicators establish a solid working relationship with campus police. Social listening will reveal what followers and other users want to know. It could even uncover something critical to an investigation.

UGA quickly set up its social listening streams to monitor what people were sharing about the fatal car accident, where they were getting information, and what questions they had. "It definitely helped us understand what we needed to correct," Hobson-Pape says.

Brockport does not have a formal process for communicating about student deaths, but handling the Kogut tragedy was instructive for Tyler and his team.

"While we don't have a written policy, we definitely are more aware of how we approach the situation when it arises," he says. "We pay attention to the family's wishes first and foremost as well as the needs of any law enforcement agencies, if they are involved. But we still try to err on the side of giving more information, rather than less, and being human in our response." No matter the situation, a little humanity can mean a lot to the campus community.

About the Author Donna Talarico Donna Talarico

Donna Talarico is a writer, editor, and the founder and publisher of HippoCampus Magazine. From 2010 to 2015, she was the director of integrated communications at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania.

 

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