Students, social media faster than official information channels

  • Posted: Friday, January 31, 2014 6:12 p.m., Updated: Friday, January 31, 2014 7:35 p.m.

Moments after a South Carolina State University student was shot in the neck by a fellow student on Jan. 24, phones began to buzz.

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Some South Carolina State University students are concerned that the recent shooting death on campus could set back the gains they believe their school has made over the past year. Local

Students who witnessed the shooting or heard the gunshot began messaging their friends and letting them know what had just happened - or what they heard from someone else about what happened.

Brandon Alexander Robinson, 20, was shot in the neck and declared dead at a hospital.

Justin Bernard Singleton, a 19-year­-old university student from Charleston, was charged with murder in connection with the shooting.

Four other men were charged on Thursday with accessory after the fact of murder.

During the aftermath of the incident, university officials found it difficult to control what students were posting on social media. Many named Robinson and Singleton in their posts before police or university officials had named either.

In today's age when people carry mini computers in their pockets, it's hard for officials to prevent the word from getting out, whether it's accurate or not. In S.C. State's case, students expressed frustration and concern in having learned of the shooting through their friends first and not from university officials.

"They put out all kinds of information," Sonja Bennett, vice president of external affairs, said of students' social media posts. "From one person's ear to another's mouth, it gets misconstrued."

And an expert in crisis management agreed that the way information is delivered has changed.

"Technology is such that information both factual and non-factual is bound to show up moments after a crisis," said Bob McAlister, president of McAlister Communications. "The worst thing in the world is you can't control what other people put out in the public."

McAlister said the worst thing an institution can do is not have a crisis management plan; the last thing a leader should have to do is try to figure out how to handle a crisis under extreme pressure. He added that during a crisis, the process of who does what - such as alerting the students to alerting the media - is very complicated and very technical.

"What you don't want to do is for the sake of the immediacy send out information that turns out to be wrong," McAlister said. "But even if you don't know exactly what's happening, then say that; say what you do know and give everybody a time when you will issue an update."

On the day of the shooting, Luis Figueroa said he learned of the incident from a friend. Though the 22-year-old student said he was not fearful for his safety, he voiced frustration over what he estimated was a 20-minute delay between the shooting and the moment he received a university-issued statement.

"I found out about it before I got the text or email I'm supposed to get," Figueroa said on the day of the shooting.

Bennett said the university has a chain of command that staffers follow when incidents such as a shooting happen. And it was followed, she added; it's just that there was a lag between the moments of the shooting and when the university was placed on lockdown because authorities already knew the alleged shooter had left campus.

"We really work from the inside out," she said. "Our first obligation is to our internal constituents - students."

And that's exactly who should know first, McAlister said. It's important for people to know that those who are in charge are actually in charge, he added.

"There's nothing wrong with saying 'We don't know,'?" McAlister said. "But you follow it up with 'We're going to find out.' And social media today is as important if not more important than the mainstream media in getting information out there."

Reach Cynthia Roldan at 843-708-5891.

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