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Crisis communications takes center stage for statewide colleges at workshop

When it comes to navigating a crisis, communication is key.

If people attend exercises that are so outlandish, it’s hard to take away anything useful. They might begin with a fire…and a tornado—no, now it’s a sharknado!
— Workshop organizer
Rachel Hatch

Professional communicators from colleges across the state gathered at Illinois State University to exchange ideas and learn from Illinois State experts at a One-Day Crisis Communications Workshop in September.

Participants from cities such as Freeport, Harrisburg, Quincy, and Elgin packed the University’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) to take part in a tabletop exercise led by Illinois State’s Director of Emergency Management Eric Hodges. The communicators faced challenges that might come if a tornado caused damage at their colleges.

“Who authorizes sending an alert? Who sends the alert and over what channels?” asked Hodges as workshop attendees threw out answers and ideas. A 20-year veteran of county and state emergency management, Hodges noted the key to the drill was not to have all the answers, but to understand the questions that will surface. “Throughout any disaster, communication is the cornerstone of situational awareness,” he said.

crowd listening to two seated men speaking

Eric Jome (left) and Eric Hodges (right) address a crisis communications workshop.

Having real-world applications for the workshop was important to workshop organizer Rachel Hatch, assistant director of media relations at Illinois State. “If people attend exercises that are so outlandish,  it’s hard to take away anything useful. They might begin with a fire, then throw in an active shooter, an earthquake, and a tornado—no, now it’s a sharknado!” said Hatch. “The goal for our workshop was to guide communicators through a scene they might actually face someday, and think about what they can do now to prepare for it.”

The workshop also featured a lunchtime talk-back with Illinois State Director of Media Relations Eric Jome. Building on the exercise’s scenario, Jome questioned participants on how they would set up a press conference in the wake of the tornado, and to anticipate questions and messages.

man speaking to a group with TV cameras behind him.

Nate Carpenter talks social media at a workshop in the Emergency Operations Center.

Illinois State’s Director of Convergent Media Nate Carpenter walked the group through social media monitoring during a crisis. Carpenter, who serves as the lead coordinator for the University’s Social Media Analytics Command Center, provided workable solutions to social media searches during a crisis, and ways participants could hone monitoring.

A majority the workshop attendees came from community colleges around the state. Hatch devised the idea for the workshop after participating in a public information officer (PIO) training earlier this year with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) that included many community college communicators. “Each time I spoke about our experiences with Illinois State’s EOC, several other PIOs asked if they could get a look,” said Hatch. “It quickly occurred to me that a workshop here would be a great benefit to other schools.”

Knowing not every institution possesses the resources and expertise of Illinois State, Hodges devised options that could work for the community-college setting. “You may not use all these ideas and elements,” Hodges told the group, “but let’s talk about what will work when you get back home.”