A Winter Storm Lesson in Social Media Communication

When the University of Michigan-Flint didn’t cancel classes on December 13 after a winter storm, one student on Twitter called it an “#epicfail.” This may not seem noteworthy. Students often hope for a snow day and are disappointed when they don’t get one. However, student c0mmentary, both on Twitter and Facebook, got the attention of University Relations.

The Communication

On Sunday night, December 12, students began posting on the UM-Flint Facebook page, asking if classes would be cancelled the next day. Decisions about cancellation are rarely made on a night before. In an attempt to provide information in the meantime, this status update was posted on the page:

University administrators are monitoring the ongoing winter storm this evening. A determination regarding any cancellations will not be made until tomorrow morning. At this time, the winter storm warning for Genesee County is set to expire at 11pm. Between the hours of 3:30am and 5am, university administrators will re-evaluate the weather conditions as well as road conditions and make a decision at that time.

Depending on the weather situation in the morning, it is entirely possible that classes will go on as normally scheduled. No cancellations are being made at this time. If there are any class cancellations or even a late start to the day, you will be notified via the UM-Flint Emergency Alert System, as well as email, university website, radio, and television outlets.

Communication via Twitter linked to this update, and individual users were responded to regarding cancellation and the process. That night, UM-Flint gained 11 new followers on Twitter.

The Response

On Monday morning, students began checking the UM-Flint Facebook page for a cancellation notice. The university had not closed. No note of this had been made on Facebook or Twitter–it is not standard practice to announce openings, as it is our regular status. Many students were upset that there had not been a closure, but a good number were surprised to find no announcement that the university was open.

The activity on Facebook was remarkably high. More than 20 individual user comments received at least 60 responses (at the time this post was written) and nearly 80 “likes.” In response to the call for more information, the following status update was posted on the UM-Flint page:

UM-Flint is open today. It is not our practice to announce openings since that is our regular status. We understand the concerns many of you have expressed regarding the decision to remain open. We urge each person to make a decision in the interest of their personal safety about traveling to campus. You can contact Jennifer Hogan in University Relations at 237-6570 with other questions/concerns.

This post received over 50 comments.

We in University Relations huddled that morning. Did we somehow misstep with regard to our social communication? Had we led students to believe that we would give notification of our open/closed status in either case? Decisions about holding classes in cases of bad weather will never be uniformly well-received. It is our responsibility, however, to communicate these decisions in the best way possible. And as we learn more about the power of social media, it is incumbent upon us to use it in ways that our audiences will benefit from.

The Take-Away

Some things we know. We know that more and more people are getting their information through social media. We know that establishing a social media presence implies two-way communication. Once a pattern of responsiveness is established, an expectation is set.

Regardless of the university’s standard notification policy, students had been getting timely updates and responses about closing procedure on Sunday night. The university’s Facebook status (above) indicated that a decision would be made by 5:00 a.m. that Monday morning, and it was likely expected that a similar level of communication would continue.

In the future, we will commit to continuous communication. We will announce the university’s status on our social networks so that students aren’t left wondering. After all, we have worked hard to make our social networks a place where students seek out and find information.

The Silver Lining

This year, a lot of work has been done to grow our social media effectiveness. We want UM-Flint’s social networks to cultivate interaction between users, build community, and provide customer service. We are never happy to see dissatisfied students, but we embrace opportunities to learn and improve our efforts.

Ever the optimist, I am personally heartened to see so many of UM-Flint’s students looking for information on Facebook and Twitter, and communicating directly with the university through those channels. I truly believe that a year ago, we wouldn’t have seen so much activity. In addition, unmet expectations imply that expectations exist–surely we must have set some standard for ourselves if students were disappointed at a lack of communication.

So we vow to do better. And we will. After all, social media is an ever-changing living thing. Without “#epicfails” like these, how can we hope to evolve along with it?