Outages, Corporate communications, and Customer service.

Imagine you are a corporate entity. Your officious websites are forced offline for almost 24 hours. The intranet is also down. There is no backup site or internal operating system to mobilize. You have no way of making announcement blasts or contacting your tens of thousands of panicky staff and students. Social media to the rescue?

But not everyone knows to turn to Facebook or Twitter for updates. After all, your corporate Facebook and Twitter boast around 70,000 and 9,000 followers respectively. And these aren’t official avenues on which important information is usually disseminated. What now?

It has been a whirlwind Sunday for staff and students at the University of Western Australia (UWA). A lightning storm on Saturday night caused a power outage to IT services across the campus, causing all webpages with a ‘.uwa.edu.au’ domain – especially webmail, Blackboard, and the Learning Capture System (LCS) – to go offline. The inconvenience was especially salient to the UWA community as this was the weekend before the mid-semester exam season. The opening screenshot is just a sampling of the student and staff queries and complaints that were streaming in on Facebook and Twitter.

While I am not trained in corporate communications or public relations, as a scholar of social media branding and audience relations, I observed and tracked the responses from the semi-official Facebook and Twitter pages of The University of Western Australia, UWA Students, UWA Library, and UWA Student Guild.

I recently completed my PhD at UWA, but I have little knowledge of how the corporate communications of these individual digital estates are managed or if they are connected, although my guess is that all four are run by different managements. Here are some thoughts on how the outage incident was handled.

All screenshots were taken throughout the day on 10 April 2016, between 1000hrs and 2300hrs, GMT+8. You can read my earlier post on UWA and social media branding here.

Timestamps

The University of Western Australia Facebook page made announcements regarding the outage on a single Facebook post, editing it each time to give updates. With this as the pinned post, all updates would ideally be found in a single place as opposed to being scattered in different status/page updates that may not be ordered chronologically, depending on the audience’s engagement with individual posts.

However, apart from the last update at “7:45pm”, all other updates were not timestamped and confusing for the audience. Unless users clicked on the edit history of the post to view timestamps and verify the recency of the information, it was not clear how frequently the updates were being dished out or how relevant they were in a time-sensitive situation.

Over at the UWA Students Facebook page, the updates were less frequent but timestamped for clarity. While The University of Western Australia Facebook page seemed to focus on short and quick updates and little audience engagement, the UWA Students Facebook page prioritised personalised responses to staff and student queries in the Facebook comments section and on Twitter. We’ll get to that in a bit.

Reposts

Surprisingly, the UWA Library Facebook page, which is presumably the main management arm that oversees IT support according to its website, did not provide direct or regular updates to its audience. Apart from its opening post announcing an IT disruption (see ‘Parlance’ below), its outage updates were three reposts from three different UWA entities: The University of Western Australia, UWA Students, and UWA Student Guild.

This gives the impression that the UWA Library Facebook page did not have firsthand information on the situation, nor were they kept abreast of updates. After all, their first two reposts were published 2 hours (from The University of Western Australia) and 6 hours (from UWA Students) later respectively – pretty outdated considering the time-sensitivity of the incident.

Similarly, updates from the UWA Student Guild Facebook page were few and far between.

It is not clear how these four different entities, their management, or their corporate communications are related or ordered into a hierarchy. Had all reposts on the various secondary pages come from a single primary source – say the UWA Library Facebook page as the arm that oversees IT services, or The University of Western Australia Facebook page as the primary institutional page, or the UWA Students page as the most engaging and responsive presence on social media all day – the audience would have been better able to discern which the authoritative source of updates was, and follow/track just one Facebook page for updates instead of going on a mini-tour of every single page each time we sought new information.

Parlance

As mentioned earlier, tensions were probably extra high given that many students had planned for last minute weekend cramping before their mid-semester exams this week. While I appreciate the attempt at humour from the UWA Library Facebook page (long live Internet cats btw) and the UWA Students Twitter feed (emoticons as tension diffusers), I’m not sure advising panicky students to take a “lazy Sunday morning lie-in” or “relaxing Sunday picnic” helped to sooth any nerves. Knowing internet vernacular is one thing. Being able to discern when a situation is appropriate for it is another skill altogether.

Elsewhere, I thought the UWA Students Facebook page displayed excellent parlance savvy when providing personal responses to individual comments *and* playfully encouraging students to get back on track (also, emoji game strong).

But it wasn’t all fun and quirks. Some users appeared genuinely worried, and when addressing these folks, the UWA Students Facebook and Twitter pages seemed to have a keen awareness of appropriate tone and posture. In the first example (left), the UWA Students admin is responding to a member of staff (one of the few visible ‘staff’ examples I chanced upon) and attempting to exercise empathy. In the second example (right), the admin jumped in on a comment-conversation between two students, @mentions them, and offers encouragement.

I also appreciated that the admin was responding individually (with @mentions) to students who were offering updates on their end, and thanking them personally.

Volunteers

Speaking of students who were freely offering information and help, I’d really like to give a giant nod to my very helpful and generous former co-workers. Up till this year, I used to work with the UWA Libraries as a Casual Student Library Officer (CSLO), where I have immense affect for my co-workers and our regular patrons.

All of today, I saw my peers going out of their way to respond to student queries on Facebook in their personal capacity and in their own time. Having been a CSLO for four years, I can only imagine the level of hysteria those on shift must have dealt with all day, with angry hordes of students demanding solutions over which my peers have no control. On top of that, these good people were volunteering updates and help on Facebook in the absence of adequate corporate communications staff. I asked Holly, Matt, and Nic if I could not mosaic their names (as I’ve done with the other screenshots) and would like to honour them here.

Relief

Over at the Confessions at UWA Facebook page, you can always count on disgruntled students to find relief and comedy in the most dire of situations.

My personal favourite was this satirical comment from a student:

02

“Yeah UWA why didn’t you stop the lightning? #disappointed”

Blame it on Thor. Or Zeus.

2 thoughts on “Outages, Corporate communications, and Customer service.

  1. Most tertiary organisations in S’pore supposedly have a business continuity management plan to avoid situations like this. If the servers at HQ go down, a back-up HQ is available at another location to keep things running.

    As someone who did corporate comms at a place like this, I wouldn’t be too worried about social media. There will always be complaints & they will always be amplified on these networks. Plus if exams department really want to show flexibility and goodwill, postponing papers is always an option. I’m much more afraid of what other people (non-students) will be saying about our screw-ups to the media, and whether or not I’ll have a reporter bugging me for updates or a statement.

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    1. Hi YX,

      Thanks for your comment.

      I’m not sure if UWA had a backup HQ. As a student actively ploughing through the various Facebook pages for information, all I know is that all three datacenters were down at some point, and IT off-campus were working to bring at least two back up online – as a “customer”, I had to actively sift through comments and responses to get this update.

      Unfortunately, because all corporate websites and webmail were down for almost 24 hours (with a few more smaller outages even this morning), social media was the primary site on which information was being disseminated and queries were being addressed all day on Sunday. I take your point that complaints will always be amplified on social media, but in this case, spaces like Facebook and Twitter were not passive receptacles of user sentiment, but actively mobilized as channels to reach out to panicky “customers”.

      What I wanted to highlight was that despite the inadequacies of the officious folks managing corp comms, some students, CSLOs, and the savvy admin behind the UWA Students page took to social media and handled the incident well. There really is no substitute for human manpower, flexibility, and tact – very crucial to note in a climate where University-wide funding cuts are substituting good staff with automated machines.

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