Read any major newspaper and you’re likely to find out about another college or university facing a crisis. Whether it’s charges of sexual harassment or assault, allegations of academic fraud in the athletics department, or an alcohol-related campus death, you need to be ready to communicate effectively if a crisis occurs on your campus.
Margaret S. Dunning, managing partner at Widmeyer Communications, A Finn Partners Company, provides crisis communications services to colleges and universities. Review her best practices for effective crisis communications.
Prepare in advance
Every institution should have a team or committee to plan for crises, Dunning said. Officials should identify a core group that would decide whether a true crisis is underway that warrants activating the team.
It’s important to determine who should be on the team and to be clear on the chain of authority and what each team member’s role is, Dunning said. The make-up of the team depends on the institution’s structure, but it typically includes someone from the president’s office, the general counsel if there is one on campus, communications, campus security, a liaison to the board, and athletics. It should be a very structured team, and each member should represent a core area, Dunning said. Preparing for a crisis is a very serious endeavor that should have support from the president down. The board of trustees also has a role, she said. Trustees need to know the institution is prepared and is regularly reviewing policies and procedures.
One person should be the crisis communication team’s spokesperson. That would typically be the head of communication, but it could be someone else depending on what works for the specific institution, Dunning said.
It’s important to create messaging in advance that could be used in any scenario. For example, if there’s a death on campus because of alcohol or a violent event, you need to speak with compassion, alacrity and reason, Dunning said. Your initial message in a crisis might be short and end with “I don’t have more to share with you.” But if the institution is silent, that allows others to fill the void.
Crisis team members need to meet regularly to practice their communication strategies for various crises before they need to use them, she said.
Admit, apologize, act
If the crisis communications team has determined that a crisis is underway, it should set up a war room, and each member will fulfill his role that the group determined in advance.
The first step for the team is to learn all the facts they can and make no assumptions about what happened. It’s important for team members to calmly review what happened. “You don’t want people with their hair on fire,” Dunning said. Advanced planning can help keep team members from panicking.
If someone on campus made a terrible mistake, the team should follow the three A’s: admit, apologize and act, Dunning said. You want to do damage control, but you also want to admit you’re at fault. When lawyers are involved, they will often encourage team members to say nothing. “The last thing you want to be saying is ‘no comment,’” Dunning said.
In the first 24 hours of a crisis, communication is very important for reassuring communities. Constituents will consider what is said, how it is said, whether it is compassionate, and how steady the person delivering the message is, Dunning said.
With a 24/7 news cycle, information travels quickly. Back when you just had to think about how the local newspaper told the story, you had more time to think through your response. But now with Twitter and Facebook, everyone becomes a reporter, Dunning said.
Some team members’ roles are to communicate with internal and external constituents, using the predetermined messaging, Dunning said. Internal constituents include staff and faculty members, students, administrators and the board. External constituents include parents and other family members, friends of the institution, funders, alumni, and the local community. The messages will overlap, but it’s key that you reach all your critical audiences and that someone is on point.
And you want to ensure that others on campus are not sending their own messages about the crisis, Dunning said. For example, you don’t want the alumni office to send out messages that haven’t been approved by the core team and the legal counsel.
Other team members’ roles should include monitoring what is said about the crisis on social media and in the traditional media. For example, you want to know what the alumni are saying. If people are sharing inaccurate information, you should respond with facts. But if people are just venting, you have to let that play out, Dunning said.
Every day of a crisis has an ebb and flow, Dunning said. When something bad happens, the initial news reports are often inaccurate, she said. The core team needs to filter through the information carefully to find out what happened. Then, if the institution did something wrong, they need to ask, “How can we fix it?” If the institution did nothing wrong, team members need to put the information out or others will share information that might not be correct.
Rebuild reputation after a crisis
If you’ve handled a crisis well, your institution will hopefully emerge with credibility, Dunning said. But you’ll need to work to build up that credibility and be seen as honest, fair and compassionate.
The crisis communications team should create an editorial calendar for messaging to build trust. Members can look at what normally happens in the course of an academic year for ideas about what to include. They should consider where they are most vulnerable and think of ways to address it.
And depending on the nature of the crisis, you’ll need to reestablish trust with certain constituents. For example, if there was a very public sexual assault, school counselors might be nervous about encouraging students to enroll. While you might not be able to provide all the details of the assault, you can tell what you are doing to educate students about sexual assault.
And internal constituents need to know what to say about the crisis. For example, admissions professionals and fundraisers should be given guidance, and they need to have faith in how you’re handling the crisis.
Also faculty and students in leadership positions can help you regain trust. They might get out the message, “They’re facing something challenging, but I think they’re being honorable in how they’re handling it,” Dunning said.
As you’re sending out messages, conduct quantitative and qualitative research to see how they’re resonating, she said. That way, you can determine what messages are weak.
And it’s important to keep the board in the loop. If the board has a role in crisis communications, one member should be the spokesperson. “The last thing you want is a board member whispering to the media,” Dunning said.
At some point, you need to stop talking about the incident on a regular basis. You don’t want to keep reminding people about it, Dunning said. “If you’ve been really trustworthy, the majority of your constituents will be ready to move on,” she said. There will always be some who will not let go of the crisis, but you’re not going to convert those with extreme views, she added.