Educators at every level — elementary, secondary and post-secondary — are looking to technology to help them impart academic messages. At the same time, school administrators are seeking new and better technology platforms to communicate both ongoing and future risks to students, parents, staff and educators.

While there may appear to be big differences between communications solutions that educate and those that protect, there are lessons from the risk communications world that should be applied broadly. Risk communications teams on K-12, college and university campuses have been grappling with the question of how to get important messages across for decades. Here’s what I’ve learned in my career while dealing with risk management issues in academia: What works best are tailored messages by group and location, and open frameworks that enable multichannel communications.

Recent events have sharpened the national focus on school safety at all levels, but colleges and universities have been serious about risk communications since the passage of the Clery Act in 1990. The Act was written to document and address campus risk events and to hold schools accountable for how they respond (perhaps most memorably, Virginia Tech was fined by the Department of Education for its response to the April 16, 2007 shootings).

The passage of the Clery Act forced the shift in thinking about student safety from being a theoretical concept for educational institutions imbued with the legacy of acting in loco parentis — Latin for “in the place of a parent” — to a highly-structured risk communications program supported by each new wave of technology (from legacy PBX phone networks, to smartphone apps). Since the Act’s passage, most every campus has expanded and improved its risk communication practices, adopting new and better technologies to get their messages across, and there are some lessons to share.

My profession’s focus on changes in communications technology has given us a lot of experience in terms of testing and learning what works for getting important messages across to a highly distractible and disperse student population.

My last official act as Director of Safety and Environmental Management for Georgetown University on Jan. 31, 2011 was manning the Emergency Operations Center in Doha, Qatar as we brought our students out of Cairo, Egypt during the onset of the Arab Spring uprising. We dealt with issues inherent in an evacuation effort that was complicated by both time and geography. My single greatest frustration was the inability to reach people where they were, with specific information and manage messages across platforms.

While a historical event, it occurred to me that there were lessons in this experience for academia, K-12 and beyond. The ability to communicate effectively determines results, whether it’s a study session or a risk event. Effective communications are highly relevant and timely and are not channel dependent.

Messages tailored by group, location, and time

Place matters in terms of relevance and timeliness — the two factors that determine how receptive one is to a message. Communications should be both timely and relevant. Consider technologies that connect a student with critical information in the moment of need (whether they are aware of that need or not). Individual receptivity to information increases when we deem it timely and relevant. Academic messages that are received when and where they are most applicable will increase engagement with the message.

Open frameworks that enable multichannel communications

Students heed messages that are integrated with their online and offline lives. Communications platforms should be channel agnostic; in other words, they should enable people to send messages across media based on preferences and where the recipient is. Look for communications platforms that deliver messages across multiple communications channels: smartphone, text, e-mail, social media and school websites and have an open framework that enables broader sharing and information exchange.

Philip Hagan is an adjunct professor at Georegtown University, a lawyer and a risk expert. He has worked in the risk management field for over 20 years and is an adviser to nsight2day, a company that helps educational institutions and large enterprises find effective solutions for communicating risks and other messages effectively. Hagan worked with the U.S. Department of Education on updating the safety and emergency provisions of the Higher Education Opportunities Act – specifically, the Jeanne Clery Act – (originally known as the Crime Awareness and Campus Security Act of 1990).

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