Social media in a crisis

“Contacting people via social media in a crisis situation is the quickest way to determine safety and whereabouts, especially when there are thousands of miles between you”

If crisis strikes when students are overseas, how can institutions check they’re ok? Email is just too slow, writes Mandy Reinig, director of study away at Virginia Wesleyan College and founder of the social media consultancy Mandy’s Mashups. She explains how social media can help to reach students who might otherwise fall off the radar.

Most people in the field of international education now understand the importance of social media in communicating with students. However, many have yet to harness its power in crisis situations. The world today has become an increasingly volatile place where the unexpected can occur at any moment. As such it is important to be able to have a means of contacting your students to determine their whereabouts and their safety status. Unfortunately, email, and even phone calls, cannot be relied on as the sole or even a reliable means of communication due to the fact that students often do not check their email regularly and in major events phone lines can be down for hours.

In these situations, social media becomes the most reliable means of communication. But, how do you make use of this powerful tool? In reality it is quite simple. You ask!

“Email, and even phone calls, cannot be relied on as the sole or even a reliable means of communication”

To make it as easy as possible I created an easy to use Google form that I sent out to all of my students after they have arrived in their new host country. I asked them for the typical contact information, such as address, phone number, etc. but, then I also asked them if they used social media and gave them a list of social media channels our office has accounts for. Then, I asked them to provide me with their user name, or phone number in the case of Instagram, tied to each of these accounts. In the form I explained that I would only be contacting them on these channels in the case of an emergency. Every student that filled out this form was more than willing to fill in this extra social media information.

Unfortunately, I have had to put this social media information to the test over the past year and a half with the events that have happened in the world, especially in Western Europe. One example of how quickly social media can be utilized was in the Paris attacks. I had a student studying there for the semester as well as several students studying throughout Western Europe. At the time of the incident I was in Eastern Australia on a site visit to various institutions. As soon as I learned of the incident I sent an email to my student in Paris but didn’t hear anything back within the first few hours. My next course of action was to log into our office Facebook account and I was able to see that she had been online and sent her a quick message to confirm that she was okay even though she has been at the nightclub just hours before the attack.

“I was able to see that the student had been online and sent her a quick message to confirm that she was okay”

I was later asked to check on the whereabouts and safety of all of our students in Europe since a fellow staff member had heard that one of the students studying in Southern France had traveled to Paris for a long weekend. My previous institution had not yet implemented a system of recording trips outside of a student’s host city and the only way of knowing about them was usually after the fact. We also relied heavily on the provider providers and host institutions we sent the students. However, I hadn’t heard from most of these groups as of yet. As a result, I sent the usual email attempting to contact the approximately 15-20 students in Western Europe.

As you can imagine, I received no response. When this happened I went to plan ‘B’ and used my Google form again and sent out Facebook and WhatsApp messages using our office account, which did make use of my own phone number. Within minutes I was receiving replies and within about two hours I had heard back from all but about two students and these two students I could ascertain their safety via the other students on their program, the posts they had made on their own social media channels, or the fact that the Facebook message I had sent had been marked “read”.

In the end, I think I received approximately two emails back, after I had already heard from these same individuals via other means. This situation demonstrated to me several important points. One, it is important to collect contact information and have it accessible anywhere you are. Two, contacting people via social media in a crisis situation is the quickest way to determine safety and whereabouts especially when there are thousands of miles between you. Finally, as long as you are honest about why you are requesting information students are more than willing to provide you with what you need. This is an easy method that saves hours of work in a stressful situation and there shouldn’t be any reason that all international educators are not making use of their social media for these purposes.