At a national conference recently, I attended a panel on crisis management conducted by officials of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The panelists were explaining to college administrators how to manage campus emergencies. Halfway through a PowerPoint presentation, one of the speakers flashed a sentence up on the screen that read, "It's not what you say; it's what Google says."
What he meant was that, in the age of the Internet and social media, the "truth" about a campus incident -- that is, the narrative that everyone believes is the true account of what happened -- often is not a factual rendering of what occurred. It is, instead, the story first propagated on websites like Facebook and Wikipedia, and then "catches on." Truth, in other words, is what people believe.
His larger point was that in managing a campus crisis -- a shooting, a sex scandal -- it is wise to make every effort to use social media to disseminate a factual account before uninformed or malicious people can publish a false description of the incident. Apparently, campus executives, like some of their counterparts in the business world, are often too slow to communicate effectively and rapidly early in a crisis, thereby allowing others to seize control of the message, and therefore of "the truth."
"More people will learn about your institution from Wikipedia than from your own site," the panelist said. "And in a crisis, more people will learn about what happened from Facebook and Twitter than from your own press releases." That was a sobering assessment to many of us in the room.
Most colleges invest substantial resources in writers, public-relations experts, and Web-site designers to ensure that they can control the message emanating from the institution (and therefore its image and "brand"), yet such efforts may not be paying off, especially in campus crises.
What is especially worrisome to many campus officials is that social media have enabled a mob mentality. When someone posts something on Facebook or Twitter, that message, accurate or not, can rage through a community like a wildfire. The immediacy of the Internet has made many of us impatient for information, so much so that we are too often willing to accept as true whatever we are told first. That impatience can easily lead to a feeding frenzy -- or, what an audience member termed, a "fog of war" phenomenon.
Another panelist emphasized that the first information circulated about a campus incident is usually wrong. Facts are distorted, people misquoted, unfounded assumptions made.
News coverage of two familiar crises in the United States demonstrates just how inaccurate initial reports of the facts can be. Immediately following the April 15, 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, various professional news organizations reported that additional unexploded bombs had been found along the marathon route; that bombs had also exploded at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library; that a "dark-skinned male" had been arrested for the crime; and that a Saudi Arabian national had been detained as a suspect. None of those reports proved true.
A month later, when three young women in Cleveland were rescued from a decade of captivity at the hands of a sexual predator, Ariel Castro, the initial reports stated that his two brothers were co-conspirators in the crime -- another untruth.
Those were erroneous reports from journalists who were dedicated to getting the facts right but who sometimes don't. In the world of social media, no such premium is put on accuracy. Instead, Facebook and Twitter more often than not operate according to the politics of rumor, gossip and sensationalism.
A college president I know was once unfairly tainted by a scandal because he did not effectively control the message. One of his cabinet members was accused of carrying on a sexual relationship with another college employee. While that story did not attract the national media, it caused a firestorm of gossip locally.
Twitter lit up with salacious accounts of a sordid tryst, and because the college's media specialists did not move quickly to respond, the implication was that the college -- and, thus, the president -- was attempting to cover up the scandal. Eventually, the college was able to demonstrate that no coverup had occurred and that officials were simply attempting to exercise due diligence before making public statements, yet the mismanaged communication strategy had allowed the president's critics to use the incident as a way to embarrass his administration and him.
Clearly, the Web has made controlling our own message exceedingly difficult for colleges. There are, however, some measures that campus officials can take to avoid losing control. Most communication experts agree on the top three most important actions to take early in a crisis:
- Respond quickly. Every minute that goes by after a campus crisis and before you respond is a minute that can result in someone else's seizing control of your message.
The Homeland Security officials at the conference advised campus executives to devise "crisis-response plans" for different types of emergencies. That is, they recommend that we draft a series of templates for how to respond. Those templates can be quickly revised to fit the facts of a specific crisis and then released as public statements not only through traditional channels, such as press releases, but through social media as well.
That approach allows campus officials to respond with a rapidity that will enable them to focus public attention on the institution's message rather than on inaccurate alternative narratives that might be posted on the Web.
It is ironic that even in academe -- where we traditionally place a premium on facts, evidence, and empirically verified observations -- a Google or Twitter account of an incident can trump the factual account. That, it seems to me, is a profoundly anti-intellectual turn. But it is, nonetheless, the climate we face.
The trick for campus officials facing a crisis -- or any other situation where the message can go awry -- is to make every effort to ensure that what Google says is exactly what you said first.
NOTE: This is a revised version of a column published in the Chronicle of Higher Education.