Cutting through the Noise

How to overcome alert fatigue as schools reopen

It is hard to believe that many parts of the country are still in a state of emergency, more than a year after the first pandemic lockdowns began in March 2020. Throughout this period, students, families and school staff have received frequent health and safety alerts from local officials. Consequently, “alert fatigue” is very real, and the weariness is only growing more intense.

As schools reopen for in-classroom learning, safety and communications stakeholders should re-evaluate their strategies to ensure important messaging can still cut through the noise and reach intended audiences. Students, parents and educators, especially, are inundated with information every day, which makes overcoming alert fatigue even harder in education.

Below are three suggestions for how campus safety managers can upgrade their mass notification systems and processes to keep people informed with communications that can potentially save their lives.

Let Students and Staff Choose How They Receive Updates

Schools today have mass notifications systems for calling attention to various threats, such as approaching inclement weather or active shooter situations. These systems have taken on COVIDrelated communications in the last year as well.

One of the best ways to increase the likelihood that students, families and staff receive emergency messages is to give them the ability to choose their preferred communication channels. Implement an opt-in process that includes the most common ways people receive alerts - text, email, cell phone, desktop notifications and push notifications. Make sure you have the capacity to deliver messages through an efficient multi-modal system.

It is not enough to offer only one or two channels for sending critical alerts. By expanding the array of options, you increase the likelihood that you can reach all people in the event of an emergency. Multi-modal messaging is key since no one single mode of communication will reach all of your users, all of the time.

In addition, letting students and faculty choose their preferred emergency notification method increases their trust in whatever is being communicated. As a campus safety manager, building trust with your community is paramount to their safety and gives you confidence that your messages are being read.

Personalize Your Messaging When Possible

Personalizing mass notifications to recipients also improves open rates. Students and faculty are much more likely to open messages that appear targeted to them rather than distributed en masse. A helpful strategy on this front is to segment your recipients into groups so that you can send messages that are always relevant to the intended audience.

For instance, you can organize people by geographic location or campus. In the event of a COVID-19 outbreak, you can then message only the students and staff who are potentially affected rather than the entire school system.

You can also segment recipients by role or other characteristics that correspond to different types of communications. For example, you may want to send alerts to only faculty, or to the onsite medical response team, at a given school.

By segmenting people into groups and personalizing your messaging, you reduce the total number of “irrelevant” alerts you send -- messages that don’t pertain to certain groups -- and increase your credibility with all recipients in the long run.

There are a number of ways to target outbound messaging. By defining each recipient’s department, role or location, you can choose the type of communications that are appropriate to send them. You can also personalize the message by identifying the group you are targeting in the message so recipients know why they are receiving a notification.

Think Strategically About the Best Mode of Communication

It is also important to think strategically about the best mode of communication for delivering different types of emergency messages. It is best practice to use different channels for different “tiers” of emergency.

For instance, many schools use text alerts only for the most urgent of circumstances, like active shooter situations or bomb threats. Use email, social media or other non-invasive channels to share less urgent information, such as mask-wearing guidance or simple scheduling reminders.

Within each communication mode, your messaging should be consistent in both design and tone. These elements should align with the overall branding of your campus safety department to help you establish an authentic presence with your community members.

The actual copy you write should also be clear, concise and deliberate. For critical emergencies, your alerts should share only what students and staff need to know for their safety. Too much information or too many action steps can overwhelm people, especially in chaotic emergency situations. For less urgent matters, your delivery can be longer and include more context, so long as it remains helpful for recipients.

Delivering targeted and relevant messages helps you maintain credibility with your intended audiences and minimizes the potential for people to become desensitized to potentially lifesaving information.

As we prepare for reopening, take time to re-assess the effectiveness of your mass alerting system. With the strategies mentioned above, you can improve the chances that your emergency messages will reach their intended recipients and keep students, teachers and faculty safe moving forward.

This article originally appeared in the July / August 2021 issue of Campus Security & Life Safety.

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