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Twitter in a crisis: Did RIT #fail? PR musings

Last month, I wrote about Breaking the news on Twitter (about RIT’s planned switch from quarters to semesters). Today’s post describes quite the opposite scenario. More in a moment, but first…

RIT—and, by extension, RIT University News—became the targets of negative criticism on Wednesday during and after the on-campus incident that led to an arrest by Monroe County sheriff’s deputies. Ironically, RIT received some criticism for perceived communication overkill via RIT Alert (as Bob Finnerty shares in his blog post), while others criticized RIT for under communication on Twitter. Quite frankly, I feel some criticism of both is warranted (even though this incident represented the first true RIT crisis of the “Twitter era”).

First, however, I believe the decision—made on the front lines of RIT Public Safety—to activate RIT Alert and issue an emergency message was a justified, precautionary measure given the circumstances and in light of recent violence on other college campuses across the country. Some recipients, though, have questioned the need to alert people who were at home—many miles away from campus in some cases—to the late night/early morning on-campus incident. I agree, in principle, with this sentiment, and I hope the notification process is examined.

Also, a few other “bumps” in the RIT Alert system still need to be ironed out. Important questions—including ones about the number and timing of phone calls that some people received—are well addressed in a statement issued on Wednesday by RIT Chief Communications Officer Bob Finnerty (as well as in Bob’s blog post). So, I’d like to turn my focus to criticism of RIT’s use of social media—Twitter, in particular—as events unfolded early Wednesday.

As stated above, some negative criticism is deserved. For example, regrettably University News experienced a bit of an internal communications hiccup Wednesday morning. Although it is not a good excuse, the middle-of-the-night timing and dispersed staff played a role. While certain aspects of our crisis communication plan were implemented without a hitch, the plan was not followed to a tee. Clearly, we could have (and should have) had more hands on deck and done much better on Twitter (with less concern for traditional media—an opinion I expressed in my previous post).

We learned from our missteps and have already implemented changes that should mean enhanced performance in social media—including addressing misinformation by other users—in the event of a crisis-communication situation. However, we also feel that it is important for everyone—particularly those who criticized RIT for poor communication via Twitter—to understand that RIT Alert is, properly, our first priority in a crisis. Quite simply: Although it is growing, the percentage of college students nationally who use Twitter is still relatively minuscule. And today, despite the hoopla surrounding Twitter, it would be irresponsible if RIT were to not make RIT Alert its first priority for disseminating accurate information in a crisis situation. As Bob Finnerty stated in a Wednesday message to the University News staff: “The priority is as follows: Accuracy, clarity of message, speed. Accuracy trumps all, even if someone is ‘out tweeting’ us.”

University News has already held two formal follow-up meetings about our response to Wednesday’s incident and, we’re confident, is much better prepared as a result of changes already implemented. We appreciate all of your feedback—positive and negative—that contributes to our improvement, here behind the scenes of RIT University News.

  1. Summer
    Mar 19

    It was my understanding that the criticism was not so much that RIT did not use twitter, just that more detailed information was unavailable from any source. Even the RIT Alert/Emergency website did not have any information about the alert—not even that one had been issued. This became even more of an issue when the "all clear" went out telling us to find more details on rit.edu, but no information appeared there for another hour. I think it was really just the lack of any communication of details online that was the issue students had.

  2. Mike Saffran
    Mar 19

    We agree with you 100 percent on both points about the Web site, Summer. Information should have been posted there much earlier (which also would’ve alleviated the second problem—the “all clear” message pointing the the RIT Web site). Thanks for your feedback.

  3. Bob Finnerty
    Mar 19

    Keep in mind that the initial alert and the all-clear alert happened within one hour. At this time, the University News crew was still gathering information from Public Safety... who had their hands full.

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