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Weathering the Superstorm
Weathering the Superstorm

From texts to Twitter—how campus communicators overcame Hurricane Sandy

By Gail Towns


NASA/Getty Images News



By the time Superstorm Sandy struck New Jersey in late October 2012, Kathy Corbalis, executive director of communications and college relations at Atlantic Cape Community College, and her team were battle-tested. In the 15 months before the hurricane, the college experienced two bomb threats via Twitter, a lockdown due to gunfire, an on-campus manhunt for an escaped prisoner, Hurricane Irene, and a derecho—a powerful straight-line windstorm—that knocked out power for six days.

These emergency situations reinforced Corbalis' belief that an integrated communications strategy is a must. As part of that integration, she recommends training staff members outside the communications office to assist with emergency communications. Two of Atlantic Cape's top security officers are empowered to send emergency text alerts that automatically update the college's Facebook and Twitter accounts through the mass notification system the campus uses. As communicators have discovered in the past few years, text messages and social media are critical to institutions' efforts to keep students, faculty, staff, and other stakeholders informed in times of emergency.

"I have run college communications directly from my [smartphone]," says Corbalis. "Our staff is trained in crisis communications, and on our phones we have an icon for the college's Rave Alert [emergency notification system]." From there, Corbalis can access Atlantic Cape's website; send messages via text, email, and phone; and post updates on Facebook and Twitter.

Tools like these would be essential information outlets for institutions and individuals as Sandy—the largest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean—bore down on the East Coast. Once the approximately 900-mile wide storm made landfall just north of Atlantic City, N.J., it brought as much as 15 inches of rain, wind gusts of more than 90 mph, storm surges higher than 10 feet, and a significant test for institutional crisis communications and emergency management plans.

Spreading the news

Like many institutions near the Atlantic coast, Georgian Court University in Lakewood, N.J., canceled classes the Friday before the storm hit on Monday, Oct. 29. As soon as that decision was made, GCU staff began working the campus's emergency management plan. An assistant provost announced the closure on the homepage, campus security activated GCU's mass notification system, and the communications team contacted the media.

As Sandy approached less than 72 hours later, widespread power outages began. GCU's communications staff communicated throughout the storm via text messaging and social media to determine who had electricity, Internet access, and working phone lines and who could send messages on behalf of GCU. Campus communicators exchanged text messages with some of the 60 students who rode out the storm on campus, posting updates and photos to the university's Facebook and Twitter accounts.

By the time the storm ended Oct. 30, Sandy had affected 24 U.S. states, six Caribbean countries, and Canada. Along the U.S. East Coast, nearly 8 million people lost power for several days to several weeks, thousands lost their homes, and more than 70 people died.

Institutions assessed the storm damage while trying to communicate with their audiences using channels and devices affected by widespread power outages and cell tower disruptions.

"The biggest hurdles were the loss of our website, campus email, and the lack of power for many of our students and staff," says Avis McMillon, director of public relations and communications at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft, N.J. "Our emergency automated messages are sent mostly to home phones, so with the power outage, only 18 percent of our automated phone calls got through."

Information on the status of faculty, students, and staff was difficult to come by, and options for keeping these audiences informed were limited as well.

"When our website went down, our technology team created a backup site where we posted updates and informed everyone that social media, text alerts, and the radio station would be used regularly to communicate," McMillon says, noting that BCC's text message base grew from 7,500 subscribers to 10,000. "People needed to know about updates from the power company; how they could connect with the mobile laundry operation; and because the storm hit around payday, employees without direct deposit turned to the web to learn that they could pick up their checks at the local police station."

Communicators sought to update audiences with the latest information through every channel at their disposal, many using their campuses' mass notification systems.

"We sent messages via our SFC Alerts system, which cycles through text, email, home phone, and cell phones to reach a person," says Richard Relkin, media relations director at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, N.Y. "The college was not damaged in any way, but because New York's infrastructure was affected, so were many of our students, faculty, and staff. We closed school for the whole week."

That meant updating the message each day to let people know whether the campus would reopen. "About the only thing we could [have done] differently [was] to get the message of the day out earlier, but we were waiting on the city to update the transit situation," Relkin says.

GCU communicators responded on Facebook and Twitter to the questions and concerns that streamed in, such as whether the campus sustained damage and the students who remained on it were safe; when would the library be back online, classes resume, and the campus reopen; and whether an upcoming teacher certification exam would take place as scheduled.

Thumb of Hurricane Sandy photo, Monmouth UPeople noticed and appreciated the efforts of Sandy-affected institutions to stay in constant contact. Parents and other stakeholders praised communicators at Fordham University in New York City for their responsiveness and the care they took answering questions on the institution's Facebook page. Monmouth University, which became New Jersey's largest evacuation center during the storm, updated students and employees every day using the university's homepage, Facebook, Twitter, local radio stations, mass notification alerts, email, and even phone trees.

"Returning members of the campus community said they were buoyed by the daily communication," says Petra Ludwig, Monmouth's public affairs director.

Caring for the community

The storm's aftermath meant weeklong inconveniences for some, but others would feel Sandy's effects for months, leading campus communities to offer help.

"There were easily more than 1,500 members of our community without housing," says Ken Boyden, acting vice president for institutional advancement and external affairs at the College of Staten Island. Located in an area of New York where Sandy struck some of its harshest blows, the CSI Foundation quickly created a marketing plan to raise money for Hurricane Sandy relief, accepting gifts by phone and online.

"We reached out to alumni, faculty, and staff on how to make a gift and how to make a request for support," Boyden says. "Many of those receiving email from us were the very same people who suffered unthinkable damage to their homes."
Thumb of Hurricane Sandy photo, GCU

GCU's campus suffered a minimal amount of damage—lost power and about 50 downed trees—but some students lost housing, cars, and belongings. Communications staff collaborated with student affairs to launch a web page providing updates about storm relief efforts and an online form where people could request help for themselves or others and notify campus officials of power outages, loss of a home or vehicle, or the inability to travel to campus. On Facebook, GCU alumni from Washington, D.C.; Texas; Colorado; and elsewhere asked how they could help. About a dozen GCU students created a Facebook group to marshal volunteers for storm cleanup and clothing and food donation drives.

Ocean County College in Toms River, N.J., also launched relief efforts, including programs to loan textbooks, replace lab kits, and distribute school supplies. OCC's college relations group created a web page for Sandy recovery and resources. Within weeks, the college's development team won a $200,000 grant from the Robin Hood Foundation to help struggling students.

"Requests from students for assistance were so moving that many staff members decided to forego the annual holiday gift exchange in favor of donating toys to the children of adult students struggling to recover from the storm," says Sara Winchester, OCC's vice president of finance.

However, students weren't the only ones affected. "Sadly, we learned that 32 staff members had either lost their homes entirely or were so badly damaged that they were uninhabitable," Winchester says. Those who could work went above and beyond the call of duty, she says, recounting a facilities worker who lost his barrier island apartment yet spent several nights on campus to monitor conditions during the power outage and manage cleanup.

Advancement considerations

Storm recovery and campus operations weren't the only issues facing institutions. When the GCU campus reopened Nov. 12, the advancement office had to quickly decide whether to mail its year-end appeal letter, which was already at the printer. Like the College of Staten Island, many GCU alumni live in the storm-battered region. It was unclear if they would even receive the solicitation, much less respond to it.

Staff members from alumni engage­­ment, annual giving, and communications reworked the letter, asking graduates to donate whatever they could to the annual fund and a special collection for students affected by Sandy.

Alumni embraced the message, contributing $38,000 through the GCU Alumni Cares donation page to replace textbooks and laptops and to buy bus passes for students whose cars flooded. The money also helped some commuter students move on campus, allowing them to finish the semester without worrying about food and shelter.

CSI postponed its phonathon, halted its largest fall solicitation, and rescheduled a large gala celebration out of respect and concern for members of its community.

"Ultimately our response wasn't just about the practical issues," Boyden says. "It was personal."

After Sandy, institutions and staff members are also reviewing their emergency responses to determine the changes they need to make to be better prepared next time. At publication, none of the aforementioned institutions had made formal changes to their crisis communications plans, but some were considering adjustments. (Review the CASE InfoCenter's online sample collection of nearly 30 institutions' crisis communications and emergency response plans.)

For instance, each GCU communications staff member now has access to each team member's complete contact information, including all phone numbers and personal email addresses. The person who manages social media has two staff members serving as emergency backups, and the web manager has a mobile Wi-Fi hot spot. A streamlined crisis web page that will be activated in emergencies and the purchase of additional mobile hot spots are also on the agenda.

Despite the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy, the storm highlighted what institutions are doing well when it comes to crisis communication planning as well as the areas where they need to improve. An institution's ability to respond effectively in an emergency is critical to its stakeholders and its reputation.

About the Author Gail Towns

Gail Towns is the director of marketing and communications at Georgian Court University in New Jersey.

 

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