JUST A FEW HOURS AFTER THE <b>Virginia Tech</b> tragedy, so-called experts in crisis communication were prompt to criticize the emergency response of the university, which had just been hit by the worst campus shooting spree in U.S. history. In the following days, many stayed busy crucifying the institution for the time it took to give the alert after the first shooting incident. If almost nobody in the mainstream media noticed what the web communications and IT teams pulled off that day, the higher education community saluted this tour-de-force and wondered how the Virginia Tech website managed to stay up throughout the tragedy.
"On April 16, 2007, the homepage received more than a million visits, almost 10 times the traffic of a typical Monday," said Mike Dame, web communication director at Virginia Tech, each time he spoke at communication and technology conferences over the past year.
Despite this incredible spike in traffic, the website never went down.
"Having our 'home page light' template ready to go proved invaluable. Within 15 minutes of making the decision to go to our light version, we had loaded it with content and made the switch. This was less than a half hour after the shooting ended," explains Dame.
Virginia Tech had this "light version" ready to use because it had experienced another crisis in August 2006: an escaped convict killed a security guard and a police officer near Blacksburg, resulting in the closing of the campus. After that incident, Dame and his team prepared the stripped-down version of the homepage that got used on the morning of April 16, 2007.
This degree of preparation, along with Dame's previous experience in handling crises as an online newspaper editor in Florida, made a big difference for the millions of web visitors in search of answers from university officials.
Had the homepage gone down that day for a few hours-as it did at <b>Union University</b> (Tenn.) in February after a tornado destroyed two dormitories and injured 51 students-the impact on the shocked and grieving Hokie community would have been even worse.
Over the past 12 months, many things have been said, written, and done to find better ways to send emergency notifications to campus communities across the United States and Canada. With the help of vendor solutions, numerous higher ed institutions now have a system in place to quickly alert their students, faculty, and staff members in case of an emergency via phone, text message, or e-mail.
But how many IHEs have taken the time to build a light version of their homepage that could make the difference between a functioning website and a nondeliverable web page the day a major crisis strikes? Not enough.
Whether you have a crisis web template ready or not, follow these tips to ensure your institution's website is up and running even in the middle of a big emergency.
<b>1. Make the effort part of the institution's emergency plan.</b>
Crisis web templates shouldn't be built in a vacuum by the web team. If something happens on campus, the website will be one of the most important communication channels. Finding out what type of crises to plan for and how communications will be handled by the group in charge of the emergency response will help in designing the most efficient template. "Work closely with the individuals who are responsible for the university's emergency procedures," advises Rick Rhone, university webmaster at <b>Winona State University</b> (Minn.).
<b>2. Define roles and responsibilities for web communications.</b>
Make sure the school's crisis communication plan includes specifics on how the decision to switch to the crisis homepage will be made and who will be responsible for producing its content. In the aftermath of a major crisis, your website should relay the official voice of your institution to students, faculty, staff, parents, friends, news representatives, and the world. Discussing roles, responsibilities, and the web template with the main decision makers ahead of time will avoid dreadful information bottlenecks by creating an effective workflow to publish vetted updates.
<b>3. Make friends at home to prepare for the perfect web traffic storm.</b>
"If you aren't joined at the hip with your IT team, schedule surgery now. You'll be thankful for that strong working relationship when you see your website's emergency response plan carried out with minimal communication during the heat of the moment," advises Dame. It's important to ensure there is an adequate server load balancing plan during a crisis. At Virginia Tech, two extra web servers were necessary to weather the surge in web traffic.
<b>4. Partner with friends at another institution to overcome a possible worst-case IT scenario.</b>
Work on a plan B that includes off -campus web hosting solutions, as some situations might incapacitate your campus IT infrastructure. While private commercial or even free web hosting comes to mind, more and more institutions have started to set up co-location arrangements. <b>Duke</b> and <b>Stanford</b>, for example, have put in place such an agreement, explains Ben Riseling, web operations manager at Duke's Office of News & Communications. In case of a major emergency that takes down the web servers of one of the institutions, its crisis website will be hosted and maintained by the other.
<b>5. Put your crisis web page template on a low-calorie diet.</b>
As you've understood by now, the biggest challenge your web server will face in the case of a major crisis is a huge spike in traffic. That's why you want to do everything in your power to reduce the server footprint of your webpage. Crisis templates should not contain photos, graphics, animations, or unnecessary navigation. As many calls to the database server (known as database calls) as possible should be removed as well. The goal is to reduce the weight of the page and the number of server calls. Since last year's tragedy, Virginia Tech has stripped down its crisis home page template further. "It currently is about 6KB with only three server calls-for the HTML, for the CSS, and for our logo," says Dame.
<b>6. Prepare to focus on essential information.</b>
When an institution is hit by a major crisis, its website becomes a beacon for thousands of people looking for accurate and precise information. According to Dame, your homepage should be all about brevity and clarity. Choose words deliberately and carefully, always thinking of readers' needs and emotions. If more detailed information must be provided, add links to secondary pages.
<b>7. Use a blog-or mimic its format.</b>
Crisis websites are meant to provide timely updates about a critical situation. However, they might also act as a log of past communications to offer some context to new readers. Given these requirements, the blog format-featuring automatically timestamped updates in reverse chronological order-has become a popular choice among institutions faced with a major crisis, from Virginia Tech to Union University and <b>Northern Illinois University</b>. Duke has chosen a blog for its emergency website for several reasons. For Riseling, there is no better tool to empower key people to publish critical updates quickly, because very little training is needed. Another added benefit is the built-in RSS feeds of all or specific categories of content. At Duke, this feature can be used both by individuals who prefer being informed via RSS and by systems like CMS-enabled department webpages or networked flat-screen displays in key locations on campus.
<b>8. Test, test, and test again.</b>
Regularly schedule drills to test moving to the crisis page. "If you haven't rehearsed your process for switching to your crisis page, panic during a real event might cause you to freeze," warns Dame.
<em>Karine Joly is the web editor behind www.collegewebeditor.com, a blog about higher ed web marketing, public relations, and technologies. She is also a web editor for an East Coast liberal arts college and a consultant on web projects for other institutions.</em>