Called Up: It’s Worse When the Crisis Is Real

What does a crisis day look like for a social media administrator on a higher ed campus?

By: Andrew Cassel
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Editor’s Note: Andrew Cassel wrote this piece on social media crisis situations more than a month prior to the devastating fires that tore through Maui. If you are looking for ways to help the families impacted by those fires, please use the following links vetted by the University of Hawaii at Manoa: 

As drastic weather events and other crises become more frequent, higher ed social media teams should be included in campus preparedness exercises because they are often the first “voice” that students and parents may hear when searching for relevant information and direction.

A deviation from Volt’s traditional articles, this piece is the fictional minute-by-minute narrative of an unnamed social media administrator, who was fortunate enough to be included in crisis training, as she works through one such emergency. 

10:17 p.m.

It’s not a shooter, it’s not a shooter, it’s not a shooter, she repeated to herself as she scanned the packed parking lot for an open spot.

The joint information center for the incident was set up on the edge of campus. R— Hall was one of the most recognizable buildings at the school. As a social media content creator (and even in the years before that) she had shared dozens if not hundreds of images of the architecture on Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest, Facebook, Reddit—all the platforms. She’d made TikToks in the hallway. Their most viral Reel had started in the building.

Walking up the path to the building at 10:17 pm on this Tuesday night didn’t feel like any of the other times.

The lights seemed too bright from the windows. The doors looked like teeth frozen in a soulless grin. A person with their head glued to a text message moved past her, almost too close. She recognized the shape of the dean of students. She didn’t think they would even know who she was even if they were paying attention.

10:18 p.m.

She made herself stop and be mindful for just a moment. Projecting her imposter syndrome on-campus leadership was not helpful at the moment. She needed to be here. Now. Fully. Things were about to get very busy, very stressful, and very important very soon. 

And she could smell the smoke from the wildfires that were heading toward campus.

Lightning had started the fires three days ago, since then they had only grown fiercer and seemed to behave with almost a living and conscious intent on wiping the college town off the map. In just a few minutes the evacuation status of people in residence halls and campus buildings was about to go from ‘get ready’ to ‘everyone leave now’.

That was why she had gotten the 8 pm text from her boss. Called up, was what she had learned to think of it as during the tabletop exercises. Exercises were half-day meetings sitting in the basement of the library with people from all over campus pretending that there had been an explosion in a lab. Or an earthquake. Or something else terrible that caused pain and suffering. They spent hours practicing crisis response.

Practicing for this.

“The first thing is you’ll be called up. That activates your role in the crisis communications team,” the incident commander said during the first training. She remembered making that note in the fresh notebook she had grabbed out of the supply closet that morning. That was three crisis-response-trainings notebooks ago.

Now it was happening. She had been called up. If what scientists predicted was accurate the fire was heading straight toward campus. The emergency message that was about to go out telling everyone about the campus evacuation was going to start weeks of communication and months, if not years, of recovery.

10:19 p.m.

She shook her head at herself. Her mind really didn’t want to think about this moment. She pushed memories and assumptions away. A deep breath. Another attempt to focus.

When she got the text at 8 she pushed the ‘big red button’ on their social scheduling tool, which paused all content posting. Then, she got her bag together and headed toward the crisis command center that had been established on campus.

There had been a couple of other emergency messages in the past days as the fires grew. Other members of the crisis response team had been called up for that messaging, and she had been “monitoring social” as the email described it. “Hey, can you monitor social?”

This took patience on her part. She resisted saying something like, “I monitor it all the time, what do you mean can I monitor it?”

She did what her training had prepared her to do. She shut up and listened.

It was the active shooter training session that drove home the point of that lesson.

10:20 p.m. 

Along with the tabletops, there were big disaster exercises every three years. The kind where actors would be laid out in a parking lot covered with makeup and labeled with the injuries that people in the situation may have suffered. Burns, blood and broken bones were applied to them by members of the theater department. All to give the feeling of chaos and panic that come with an emergency.

And she had felt it keenly that first time.

She had been a student here and had worked in several offices as she matriculated through the school. She felt so fortunate her communications degree with a digital marketing minor had helped secure her a position on the staff in the marcomm office.

She loved this community. Seeing its people torn and hurting, even in pretend, had shattered something deep inside her during that exercise. She had talked both to her therapist and her boss about the experience. Her therapist had been helpful about her feelings. Her boss had provided clarity about her job.

“It’s going to be worse when it’s real,” her boss said without sympathy, “You’ve got to be ready for it. And you’re a little more ready now.”

10:21 p.m. 

A little more ready was right. In the two years since that day of active shooter training, that breathless and mind-numbing moment she spent looking down at a first-year student with bandages around their face, fake blood smeared across their chest and arms, and next to them a sheet-covered form with a toe tag attached, she had been involved in several crisis training sessions.

“Social media would be panicked and loud if this was really happening,” she had said in tears in that meeting with her boss after the active shooter exercise. “Can’t I tell them anything? ANYTHING?”

Her boss shook their head slowly. “Anything we say can make things worse in crises. Anything. I know you want to make them feel better. Offering them a place to get real, accurate information is all you can do. It’s all you will do. You link to the site, you say here’s where to go. In the crisis, I won’t be able to give you direction. I’ll give you tasks. And I will trust that you know what to do.”

Each exercise was a chance to learn more about how the incident command structure worked and how members of her team worked with first responders and campus leadership and community members.

And each time she sharpened up her own crisis communications abilities. She worked so she would know what to do and her boss’ trust would not be misplaced. Exactly as was intended by the exercise.

10:22 p.m. 

At several conferences over the years, she had talked to people who had jobs similar to hers about their experiences during tabletop exercises. She was often surprised that her peers were not always a part of them, and some had never had any crisis communications training.

On nights like this, standing outside one of the most familiar places on campus and potentially in the literal line of fire, she was very glad that her department leader had provided her the time and tools to prepare for what could be one of the worst things to happen in her career.

With a glance over her shoulder at the glow of the wildfires behind the hills to their west, she exhaled that breath she had been holding. She adjusted the strap of her laptop bag higher on her shoulder and continued up the stairs toward the not-smiling doors. The next update was minutes away. She needed to be at her station before then.

She closed her heart to fear and anxiety and prepared to open her laptop and face the world of despair that was waiting for her on social media.

10:23 p.m. 

The joint information center was a hub of focused activity. 

She found the communications team gathered in their corner. After saying a grim hello to everyone she tucked into that same corner close to a power outlet. She pulled out her computer and accessories, setting up her mobile office. Since March of 2020 her idea of what an ‘office’ was had changed many times. As a social admin, her office was sometimes no more than her mobile device.

This time around it was her work laptop, mouse, charging bank for her phone, a notebook and an extra phone and battery bank in the bag, just in case she needed to move quickly to a press briefing and leave the complete setup behind.

Once her gear was in place she pulled out her water bottle and looked around to see if…yes…someone had set up a little coffee station in what was normally a classroom overlooking the main campus quad. As she filled the covered camping mug that was part of her crisis kit she watched a string of emergency vehicles speed past campus toward the direction of the fires. She couldn’t hear sirens, but the flashing lights were somehow more frightening than usual. 

10:24 p.m.

Back to her place, she set down the covered mug, launched browsers and started opening tabs for all the social networks she would monitor.

She had the social tool they used up and running as well. Then, she checked the clock. Three minutes until the next alert. The one that was going to change everything. She felt that feeling that comes when something bad is going to happen and there’s nothing that can be done to stop it: dread. That was the feeling, dread. And it wasn’t helpful. She put it aside, along with all the other things that had anything to do with what was not happening here and now.

It had been during one of her first exercises when she stopped asking tons of questions about when things would happen during the crisis event. Still, she sat and struggled against going to her boss and confirming that the message was about to go out.

“I’ve got too much to do to answer all these questions,” her boss had told her after that active shooter exercise three years ago as they were reviewing what had happened. “When we’re in a crisis you’ll have to sit and wait and know that it will come, and react when it happens. Just be ready.”

10:25 p.m.

Just be ready.

Those words had echoed in her mind ever since then, during every crisis both real and practiced. Real crises had happened during her five years on the job. Three suicides, a faculty member’s classroom behavior, an athletic team being cut, a sexual assault on campus and extreme weather events. 

Her job was the same, no matter the crisis. Even in this one that was filled with the slowly rising cold realization that a deadly wildfire was inexorably heading her way. 

Her job was to listen. To prepare reports. To be ready.

Her job was not to walk up to the lieutenant from the fire department and tell them people on the parent’s Facebook Group were wondering how long it would be until they could come to campus.

Her job was not to tell the president’s admin assistant that people on Twitter felt that there had been a terrible response from the “administration”.

Her job was not to do anything. Her experience and training had prepared her to wait.

It was the most challenging thing to do.

10:26 p.m.

She wanted so badly to answer questions. Like the one she was looking at right now. “I’m so scared right now,” a student who posted regularly to Twitter had just shared. She knew the student. Had interviewed them, had collaborated with them on a campaign that performed well with user-generated content.

A few words in response, “We’re scared too, it’ll be okay,” were what she wanted to say and so far away from anything that she could say that it was almost physically painful. What she could do was screenshot the message and add it to her folder.

She did a quick survey the minute before the next expected official message.

Fear and uncertainty were all that she saw out there.

10:27 p.m. 

She checked the message alert site. There was no need to ask if the latest emergency message was ready. It would be posted when it was.

And there it was.

She grabbed the link, wrote “The latest official campus update has been posted to [school] alert site. Our next update will be in 30 minutes” into a document she could use to copy-and-paste from and then shared the message with the link across all social platforms. This was made somewhat easier using the broad social scheduling tool, but there were still some places that needed to be updated manually.

10:28 p.m. 

She wanted to comfort, to console, to provide some care for the community. She couldn’t do that.

She could look for messages, like “power’s out here” or “my friend is trapped,” or any concerns at the evacuation sites. Those messages would be saved and forwarded to her boss who would either pass them along, ask her for more context, or decide if they needed attention or not. They would be triaged in order of importance.

10:29 p.m.

There would be few postings going out from her corner office – maybe once a half hour. But a lot of messages coming in of switching between platforms, scanning keyword searches and supporting team members. 

As a social media admin, one of her favorite things was to engage with the community: notes, comments, GIFs, stickers, all the fun parts of building community. None of those skills were needed now. She didn’t need to engage.

She would not respond.

10:30 p.m.

The crisis was here. The fires were coming. 

She had to shut up and listen.

Andrew Cassel

Andrew Cassel

Contributor

Andrew Cassel has been creating and curating social media content for higher ed since 2011. Cassel speaks regularly about social media content at conferences and symposiums. Cassel was awarded a best-in-track Red Stapler and is a five-time winner of the Aurora Awards of Excellence from the Public Relations Society of America – Alaska. In 2019, he was a host for Higher Ed Live – Marketing Live. His paper “Twitch for higher education and marketing,” based on his HEWeb 2019 session, was published in the spring 2021 peer-reviewed Journal of Education Advancement & Marketing. Cassel is currently the Senior Social Strategist and Content Producer at Middlebury College.


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