Monday, August 29, 2011

Communicating Irene's Wrath

Hurricane Irene roared through our beautiful Hudson Valley and Catskills and left a deluge of rain and a trail of destruction among the worst I have seen from any storm during my lifetime.  Some news outlets and individuals thought the event was over-hyped by the media.  Try telling that to my neighbors who spent hours pumping water out of their garage and basement, or the folks in downtown Poughkeepsie whose streets are still closed due to flooding.  My heart also goes out to the people in beautiful little villages like Windham and Margaretville, nice Sunday drives from Poughkeepsie, that have been nearly destroyed by cascading rapids and the washing away of homes and bridges.

Marist College also got hit.  We have one of the most scenic campuses in America, right along the eastern shore of the mighty Hudson.  Today it is the muddy Hudson due to all the runoff from the Fallkill Creek and storm sewer systems from municipalities along its length.  President Dennis Murray issued a wrap-up of the work done over the past couple of days in a memo to the college community today.

Over the past five days, I've posted more than 100 tweets, first about preparation plans for students moving back to Marist, then the storm's impact on our college and region, and finally, on its aftermath.  I know I tweet a lot, and probably lose some followers because of it (mostly spammers and bots, I hope), but during a crisis, social media is invaluable in keeping people informed and squelching rumors.

What kind of rumors?  Someone, whom I'm not even sure is currently a Marist student, tweeted that there was a partial collapse of Marist's Lowell Thomas Communications Center and put in other alarmist drama to make it sound like the campus was a disaster area.  Because I am constantly online, I saw that erroneous tweet, and a retweeting of the false info by someone I know is a Marist student, and took them to task publicly over their misinformation.  The student apologized.  The person who started the rumor, probably just to get attention for herself, did not respond but knew I was watching and switched to another topic.  Her tweets, btw, consist mostly of dropping the f-bomb.

Thanks to my friends and colleagues Melissa Egan and Cody Rotwein in Marist's Web Services department, we were able to place updates on the Marist homepage 10 times.  There were more frequent updates on the Marist Facebook page, and of course, on twitter.  Some of the updates were within minutes of each other, such as when there were changes in the estimate of when a repair of a Central Hudson Gas & Electric substation off-campus would restore power to Marist and the surrounding neighborhood.  An original estimate of two hours was thought to be too soon because of complications with the repair, so I wrote that it could take another three hours.  Excuse the pun, but I didn't want to leave students, parents and Marist staff in the dark.  Fortunately, about five minutes after that Facebook posting and tweet, lights came back on.  I'm still glad I sent out the other information because, as in any type of disaster preparedness, we plan for the worst and hope for the best.

Even I need some sleep and can't be online 24/7/365, though it seems like I am.  Fortunately, I have been awake and on various social media sites when I've seen incorrect info posted about Marist.  The strategy to address it is simple: confront it, nip it in the bud, correct it.

People want correct information and they want frequent updates.  More than 15,000 people visited the Marist Web updates from last Thursday through today.  More than 2,000 clicked on the links from Facebook and twitter.  BTW, half of the referrals came from Facebook, making Facebook, in my experience, still the predominant social medium.  Twitter is rightfully credited for the rapid creation of content and serving as a great news aggregator (much better than a site I used years ago -- Newsgator).

One last's nice to get a pat on the back when you work hard and things go well.  Too often, people complain more than they compliment.  I am grateful for the comments made by students, faculty and staff at Marist, parents, alumni, people in the community, fellow PR practitioners and the media on Marist's communications efforts before, during and after the storm.  Many people not directly related to a public relations function are needed to make a communications strategy successful.  I work with incredible colleagues and deeply appreciate their cooperation and support.

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