The phenomenon of the nanosecond news cycle was on full display this week at The University of Texas at Austin (UT). On Monday campus police received a call regarding a stabbing incident on a busy campus plaza at 1:46 p.m. Reports of the attack, which took the life of a 21-year-old undergraduate and seriously injured three others, went viral on social media immediately. Yet the university did not issue an emergency message for almost half an hour. Students received a text message at 2:14 p.m. In the aftermath, UT has been severely criticized by students, parents, communications experts, and the media.
In my forthcoming book, Brand Under Fire, I discuss five principles of crisis communication: authenticity, transparency, speed, agility, and creativity. In this case, the university had difficulty acting with transparency, speed, and agility. Stakeholders want and expect institutions to be as nimble as the social media networks they use every day. When UT failed to provide reliable information in real time, the rumor mill filled the vacuum. At that point, UT lost control of the narrative.
UT President Gregory Fenves and the chief of the UT Police Department conceded that the university’s emergency communications system needs improvement. “We were too slow to let the entire campus know about the stabbings after they happened,” said Fenves. “And UT police were too quick to report there was no threat west of campus because, as we learned later that evening, an incident had taken place. Students rely on us to make decisions for their safety and well-being, and we need to do better. We will do better.”
Adding to the confusion was that the second “incident” Fenves referred to was later reported to be false, as were many other details that were widely reported in social media.
Complex organizations have complex and sometimes unwieldy communications systems. But these days, organizations cannot afford to depend on outdated systems that lack speed and agility. The University of Texas at Austin learned that the hard way.