How would Stanford communicate in a crisis?

Lisa Lapin
Lisa Lapin is vice president for university communications at Stanford.

Stanford continuously works to improve its emergency response systems in preparation for crises administrators hope never occur. Lisa Lapin, vice president for communications, answers questions about how the campus intends to communicate with students and their families should an emergency occur on the Stanford campus.

How would students be alerted to emergency situations on campus?

Stanford has a notification system called AlertSU, which can send out alerts via mass emails, phone calls, text messages and, if necessary, campuswide sirens. Police generally initiate the alerts. For more complex incidents or situations impacting the greater campus, Stanford University Communications will assume responsibility for communicating with our immediate community.

We plan to use the web as a primary mode of frequent communication, in addition to social media, especially Twitter and Facebook. We run ourselves through timed drills so that we can practice posting messages through all of the channels available to us as quickly as possible.

How quickly can Stanford alert the university to an emergency?

Every situation will have a different timeline, but the university’s intent is to use AlertSU to communicate with faculty, staff and students as quickly as possible. By federal law– specifically the Clery Act – all colleges and universities must alert their campuses to imminent threats so people can take preventative measures. How fast an alert is issued would depend upon how quickly a problem is reported to campus police or other local agencies, the nature of the situation and how quickly the report can be reasonably substantiated. We know that information is quickly shared via social media by bystanders when a crisis occurs. Stanford will want to be sure we share both the most timely and most accurate information possible.

How would families learn more directly from Stanford about what is happening on campus?

Communicating with families during an emergency would be a high priority for Stanford. We would use emails and web updates and be proactive in sharing what we know as soon as we know it. Parents do not receive AlertSU messages, but we have two methods of communicating via email with parents: one is the distribution system we use for the Stanford Parents’ Newsletter. The other is using emergency contact emails collected by the Registrar’s Office. That said, we know that students and parents will be communicating directly and frequently, as well. We encourage parents and students to have their own communications plan using texting or social media for checking in after an event so parents can have the peace of mind of knowing their student is safe.

If there were a large-scale critical incident on campus, everyone, including parents, would be directed to the website, which is where we would post regular, detailed updates. That’s where we would focus our initial communication efforts, and that’s where parents would learn the most up-to-date information. The information will also be shared through Twitter and Facebook postings.

What challenges do these kinds of emergencies pose, and how are you preparing for them?

First, it is very challenging to get accurate information quickly, given the heavy activity that emergencies entail. Our police will be focused on response and safety warnings first, detailed information second. Social media reports may be faster, but the information bystanders provide is not always accurate. It is possible that mobile and digital communication may be sporadic, or even fail, due to the sheer volume of information being transferred. The websites of some colleges and universities have actually crashed during emergencies because of the volume of traffic. In a major earthquake we could lose electricity, so we are taking steps to deploy backup web systems. Those are all challenges we continue to discuss.

We also know that parents may want to reach someone live to get information rather than glean it from a website. As a college parent myself– my daughter is at Stanford, too, and my son graduated from New York University–I can relate. But campuses that have experienced crises tell us that is a difficult expectation to accommodate in a large, fast-moving situation. Most likely, we would communicate personally first with parents of students who might be directly affected by an emergency. Then we would be better able to reassure other families that their students haven’t been affected.

What happens if you lose the ability to communicate?

We hope that never happens, but it is a possibility and we are working to be prepared. For example, we have relationships with off-site services to help us handle massive online interest. Stanford attracts global attention as a matter of our day-to-day business, and we already have among the highest volumes of website traffic of any university in the world. Should there be a crisis here, we expect that not just our campus community, but interested people around the world, will be coming to our website for information and updates, so we are preparing for that high volume.

Throughout Stanford, we take emergency preparation very seriously, working to think through every possible scenario, including the unthinkable, and adopting best practices from other institutions that have faced such challenges. Sadly, there has been much to learn from our colleagues at other colleges and universities.