Hundreds of dollars in gift cards are up for grabs in the Office of Emergency Management's social media challenge against Virginia Commonwealth University this month. The contest will run until Friday, Sept. 26, and is open to University of Richmond students, faculty and staff.

The contest is part of National Campus Safety Month and National Preparedness Month, and is designed to see which university can garner the greatest percentage increase in social media activity. "Each school will count the posts, shared posts, likes, re-tweets and photos submitted by social media users," according to an email sent to students just after midnight Monday. "The winning school will be determined by the percentage increase in social media posts compared to dates prior to the contest."

Every day of the contest, the OEM will be giving away gift cards to a variety of businesses, Schaal said, including Sweet Frog, Target, Groupon, iTunes, Google Play, Kroger, BP, Shell, Fandango and Amazon. Students, faculty and staff can enter to win the cards by liking the office's Facebook page or following its Twitter, she said.

"We wanted to come up with a fun, different way to engage our communities in preparedness efforts," said Brittany Schaal, Richmond's director of emergency management.

The Richmond Alert system, in place since 2007, has "phenomenal" student participation of about 90 percent, Schaal said. "But if you get an alert and you don't know what to do with it, it doesn't do me any good," she said.

"We are using a rivalry to spread awareness and get people thinking about what they would do to prepare for a natural disaster or severe weather,” said Adam Crowe, VCU’s emergency management coordinator.

The most visible part of the challenge will be the OEM's new mascot, a cartoonish creature designed by Katie McBride, an artist with the university's Office of Communications. Known as "a lert," it is a hybrid of several animals often seen on campus, including deer, squirrels and geese, Schaal said.

The mascot is featured in posters hung around campus that teach basic disaster safety tips, such as a ducking under furniture during earthquakes and staying close to the floor when escaping a burning building. People will be able to take pictures with full-sized cardboard cutouts of the caped mascot around campus during the challenge, Schaal said. During the second week of the challenge, students, faculty and staff will have the chance to win a $100 gift card to the Richmond Bookstore by submitting names for the mascot. "We're going for quirky and different, so it sticks in your head," Schaal said.

After the challenge, increased followings on Facebook and Twitter will allow the university to disseminate detailed information about natural and human disaster threats, Schaal said. "We want to make sure people are protecting themselves," she said.