Could their cell phones have saved the Virginia Tech students?

In a few weeks I’ll be giving a speech to a group of university and college marketing professionals. The topic: Our changing communication landscape. I plan to focus on that word — communication — instead of marketing. Modern marketing is increasingly about simple, authentic communication. Especially when your audience is part of the Facebook and AIM generation. What follows is the introduction I am considering for my talk.

Just as ClickZ Experts columnist Sean Carton did in his blog entry on this topic, let me begin with a disclaimer. No blame for the Virginia Tech tragedy should be laid at the feet of the school’s administration. None. It is clear they did everything by the book, following the existing protocols pretty much to the letter.

Events played a horrific trick on these school and law enforcement officials. Once they realized that the shooter in the first pair of murders was on a rampage, the challenge of alerting students was daunting. Alerts were sent by email. Most went unread when they could have done the most good — immediately upon sending.

Cell phone SMS – also known as text messages — would have better matched the message with the audience.

Choosing the right medium for your message is really Communications 101. But habitual thinking can blind us to the newest, best ways to communicate. Then something terrible comes along to wake us up.

I’m using the example of Virginia Tech to remind us all that we need to forge new habits if we want to succeed, whether our job is to keep students safe, or attract them to our schools in the first place.

In a recent blog entry about Twitter, which is a way to push messages en mass to friends’ cell phones, I had mentioned that some of the last messages passed between loved ones during the fires of 9/11 were via SMS. Even when the electricity and land lines were down and cell phone circuits were jammed by too much traffic, the thin pipeline of SMS over cell phones and PDAs remained clear. Messages continued to pass in and out of the Twin Towers, in 160-character packets, presumably until the heat and smoke was too great.

I suggested in that post that had Twitter existed then, its SMS abilities might have passed emergency information to a critical mass of people on the imperiled floors, informing them that help was not on the way and the stairways were the last, best chance at survival.

Similarly, text messages to the students at Virginia Tech could have instantly carried enough information to enough students to help them avoid or escape harm’s way.

No company can say they are fortunate because of a terrible event, but the publicity from the shootings has boosted exposure for Rave Guardian, a technology by Rave Wireless that allows students to opt in for the sort of vigilant tab-keeping that was once the exclusive domain of worried parents.

Rave Guardian allows students to set a timer — for perhaps 30 minutes — when they leave their friends’ dorm rooms to go back to their own. If they return safely they can simply turn off the alarm.

“If something did happen, it would transmit their location every three minutes, including their profile, to campus safety,” reports Rodger Desai, president and CEO of the company.

This is just one application. Rave, like many others, has recognized that although the web and email have their uses, modern students use their computers less often than their cell phones. They are field-testing a set of channels that students can set up to receive everything from bus schedules to campus news. A freshman at one of the pilot schools, Montclair State University, said that he gets a ton of value out of his cell phone by using these channels, including the following:

  • Checking out the menu of his dorm’s dining hall
  • Monitoring a continually updated map showing the progress of shuttle buses in their routes through campus

“It’s pretty useful, and it’s going to get better and better,” this student reports.

I agree. Now information coming to cell phones is but a trickle. But there will eventually be a potential torrent — one that is thankful regulated by a faucet we control at an individual level. This will happen. And in this country at least, it will happen first on our high school and college campuses.

So let’s all of us vow now, as the parents, grandparents and stewards of the kids who will be blazing this trail, to do our best to at least watch where they are going. Lord knows we may not understand it all, but we could understand enough to help them become educated, productive citizens. We may even have a hand at saving someone’s life.

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