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In Aftermath of Marathon Bombings, a Salute to MIT’s Crisis Response

The City of Boston is home to more than 152,000 students at 35 colleges and universities—and all of them were affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. Many had alumni, students, faculty and staff injured in the blasts. All were in lockdown during the massive manhunt for the suspects. All needed to communicate critical, safety-related information to their communities in the hours and days after the bombings. But three institutions, in particular, were impacted in even more profound ways.
Boston University graduate student Lu Lingzi was among those killed in the explosions on April 15. MIT officer Sean Collier died from gunshot wounds incurred during a related crime spree on April 18. And UMASS Dartmouth sophomore Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is the 19-year-old suspect in the case.  (Yesterday, three other UMASS Dartmouth students were arraigned on related charges.)
These universities faced enormous communications challenges amidst rapidly changing and unprecedented circumstances. To complicate an already difficult situation, there was little official information being released by the FBI, round-the-clock breaking news coverage to deal with, and rumors and other misinformation being reported (even by reputable outlets like CNN!). Not to mention, much of the situation unfolded in the middle of the night, when college and university crisis teams weren’t on campus.
It’s easy in hindsight to find communications mistakes in crisis situations. For example, UMASS Dartmouth’s Facebook page reveals some parents and students felt inadequately informed—justifiably or not—about the evacuation of campus so that federal authorities could search the suspect’s room.
Yet, while I am a believer that there is a lot to learn by recognizing missteps, there are also great lessons to be learned in what was done right. And, MIT, in particular, did a whole lot right. Here are three things I thought they handled beautifully:
Here’s what the MIT homepage looks like today.

Here’s what their homepage looked like immediately following the shooting of Officer Collier.
MIT homepage on April 18
And then, just hours later:
MIT homepage - April 19
MIT reacted without delay and in a highly visible way on their homepage to the unfolding tragedy. Both the initial posting, with background image removed and large, red emergency text, as well as the main image of the MIT badge and the “spotlight” box with the larger, bolded headline made it instantly clear to visitors that the campus was in the midst of an emergency situation and pointed people in the direction of additional information.

Linked directly from the homepage, their timeline was updated every 20 minutes or so from the time Officer Collier was shot to the time the suspect was apprehended. Updates included new information when available as well as safety reminders and instructions. Similar updates were posted to social media throughout the evening of Thursday, April 18 and during the day on Friday, April 19.
MIT Twitter page, April 18
Initial postings were focused on the immediate emergency and keeping people safe. Later posts offered counseling and other services to help people cope with the week’s events. Most importantly MIT made good on their promise to keep the community informed and provided the right kind of information at the right times.
Officer Collier/Media
By the early morning hours on April 19, the MIT community had received an email from the institution’s executive vice president/treasurer and its chancellor notifying them of Officer Collier’s death, the cancellation of classes for the day, and the president’s plans to return to campus from a trip abroad as soon as possible. A full obituary, including quotes from the president and other officers was posted by the time people were waking up to start their days. This was important not only for the campus community, but also for journalists, who had been on the air since the night before providing coverage of the manhunt with little substantive information to report. Throughout the day on April 19, and in the week that followed, MIT students and administrators did hundreds of interviews with media outlets all over the world about Collier. And at a memorial for him on campus last week before a live audience of 15,000 and a television audience of millions, against the backdrop of an enormous American flag, they demonstrated to the world the strength and closeness of the MIT community, as well as the compassion of its students and staff.
It’s unfortunate—as it is in so many cases—that it took a tragedy to expose MIT’s strengths to the world, but I’m not sure anyone could have walked away from the coverage of Officer Collier’s memorial with anything other than a sense of pride in the institution. Given the situation they were dealt, they certainly made a positive impression.
(TVP Communications extends sincerest sympathies to the families and friends of all those killed in the bombings and related incidents and healing thoughts to the many still recovering from injuries.)