Fans of The Simpsons will no doubt recognize “crisitunity“ as the word Homer coined when Lisa told him that the Chinese word for crisis is the same as the word for opportunity. (If you want to verify that, you can look it up in Urban Dictionary). The word has been running through my head for the past couple of weeks as we in the Northeast have endured one of the worst winters in memory. A few weeks ago, we got hit with a one-two punch from Mother Nature, and in between storms, as we saw the forecasts getting more and more dire, we decided that we had to do what hadn’t been done at the school in more than 10 years: cancel classes. Getting the word out proved to be less than the Communications’ Office’s finest hour.
Once the decision was made, the process of letting everyone know became a communications problem. First, we didn’t have just one message to send to one audience, but multiple messages to multiple audiences, because the physical plant staff needed different information than the boarding students, and the day student parents’ needs were different than the faculty’s. Then we had to figure out the best ways to send out the messages. We have an emergency communications system in place that allows us to send email, phone and text messages, but was this really an emergency? We also have our internal email, as well as a separate system we use for email “blasts.” Finally, we then learned that these various systems hadn’t been kept in synch, so no system had everyone’s updated contact information.
Our planning hadn’t adequately prepared us for the reality.
And there was one other problem: word was getting out prematurely via Facebook that we had called off school. When we made the decision to cancel classes, we decided to embargo the information until later that evening, when the boarding students were in study hall and the day students had gone home. Somehow word got out, and our Dean of Students was being questioned by parents, and some alumni, about whether the rumors were true.
When â€œzeroâ€ hour came, we sent out the messages. And our emergency notification system didn’t work as we had hoped; several people didn’t receive the text messages they were supposed to. As a result, several people the next morning braved the poor road conditions and made it in to work, only to find that they didn’t have to be there.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the snow day: what we treated as a crisis turned into one that alumi and students treated as a fun, historic day in the history of the school. Alumni went to the school’s Facebook page and discussed when the last snow day had occurred. The library posted a “mystery” photo on Facebook with a snowy theme and a prize. We blogged about it, alumni commented on it, and students and parents liked it. It turned out to be a fun day, and it is certainly one that everyone will remember for quite some time.
What did we learn?
1. We shouldn’t have waited. Once the decision was made, we should have put the word out. This is even more true in a crisis: the longer you wait to send out the message, the more likely it is that someone else will be doing the talking for you.
2. Testing doesn’t prepare you for the real thing. We tested our emergency system once a year, religiously, but not enough people knew what to do when push came to shove, and we used other systems more regularly and were more familiar with them. We should have used our emergency more regularly, for non-emergent messages as well.
3. Social media can help with the not-so-great messages, too. We’ve spent so much time training our constituents to go to Facebook or Twitter to get information from us, it makes sense to use them when we have important information to get out there, too. But as much time as we’d spent on it, we didn’t include it in our crisis communications plan.
4. Snow days are fun! We posted the cancellation notice on our Facebook page, and we quickly received comments from alumni who were curious to know when the last time we closed, chastised us for being “soft”, expressing appreciation for being in warmer climes now, or made whistful posts about missing the snow.
5. Successfully navigating the bumps in the road reveals the path to crisitunity.