Beyond PR

Feb 03, 2012

Dear Gracie: Crisis Communications Tips for Colleges

Dear Gracie,

I run a small PR firm, and we’re interested in expanding our services to include PR for colleges and universities. I’m looking for advice on crisis communications specifically. What are the unique challenges of crisis comms for higher-ed institutions? Any tips?

Service Starter


Dear Service Starter,

Seven ProfNet experts weigh in:

Prepare for Every Potential Crisis

Studies indicate that organizations that prepare for PR crises in advance actually experience fewer issues and recover more quickly, says Adele Cehrs, president of Epic PR Group.

“Preparing ahead of time is essential,” says Cehrs. People under emotional stress can make bad decisions, so it’s important to anticipate crises ahead of time.

“Brainstorm every crisis your university would most likely encounter,” says Cehrs. Ask yourself:

  • What has the university faced in the past?
  • What factors could make the university liable for a crisis?
  • Is there a plan in place already?

Start your planning based on the issues that are likely to happen that would have the highest impact on your university, says Cehrs.

Plans should include clear, actionable steps for dealing with crises, as well as assigned accountabilities, policies for addressing the media and issuing press releases, and guidelines for parental inquiries, says Sally Mounts, Ph.D., president of Auctus Consulting Group.

“Practice how you will implement the plans,” says Cehrs. Consider crisis scenario training; or creating a dark website ahead of time where community members can find FAQs, official statements, etc.

Courtney Jolley, director of institutional communications at Loyola University Maryland, says her PR team uses a crisis communications strategy that is essentially a checklist. “Not every crisis calls for every possible response, but the plan ensures we take the time to consider whether a specific constituency of channel is being addressed appropriately,” she says.

The checklist would likely need to be extended for a national crisis to address a prolonged period of time, but the fundamental steps and constituencies to reach out to would be the same, continues Jolley.

Plans should be fluid, agrees Brenda Velasco, manager of PR and internal communications at Biola University in Southern California. Biola classifies emergencies into three categories:

  1. Local and internal
  2. Less severe emergency
  3. Major crisis

“Each category includes a list of crises and standby statements for each,” explains Velasco.

“Nowadays, local and regional crises easily become national crises,” says Brooks. “Assume that almost any crisis can become much bigger.”

And while you can’t predict what your crisis will be, create adaptable messages ahead of time for the university’s traditional and new media outlets, says Cehrs.

And make sure your “proof points,” like statistics and studies, are quickly accessible for reporters asking you to prove assertions, says Cehrs.

Any university that doesn’t have a crisis plan in place is courting PR disaster, stresses Mounts.

When the Storm Hits, Be Honest

When the crisis hits, you’ll have to consider certain factors and tailor your plan to the situation, says Michael Laderman, assistant vice president for communications and marketing at Barry University in Florida. You might have a basic plan in place already, but it still comes down to common sense and figuring out what the right and wrong things to do are, he says.

Consider how accurate the controversy is, if the university did anything wrong and how it can be fixed, and what type of media organizations are inquiring about it (e.g., traditional vs. gossip outlets), Laderman continues.

Universities often have regulatory requirements concerning the disclosure of names and/or disciplinary actions, warns Mounts. Legal counsel should be consulted early so that the school doesn’t make itself vulnerable to lawsuits for violating privacy laws.

“Total transparency is the best policy,” stresses Mounts. Given the steep cost of higher education, parents and students expect their universities to be accountable to them. Full, rapid disclosure allays public fears, and communicates to all that college authorities are responsive, concerned and in control.

Respond to University Constituents Quickly

“Timing is very important in crisis communications,” says Velasco. It’s like a chess game — you need to anticipate your audiences’ next moves.

Today’s audience expects instantaneous responses, forcing universities to issue a limited public statement before all facts are available, says Jolley.

It’s critical for universities to respond to controversial situations before silence sends a message of its own, says Jolley. “The source and format of the response will vary based on the specific circumstances, particularly if there are legal matters involved, but if nothing else, a brief statement — grounded in compassion for those affected by the situation, and a commitment to continue providing updated information — needs to be released almost immediately.”

“There is not one case where a school should respond with ‘no comment’ when they are asked by reporters,” says Velasco. “‘No comment’ allows reporters and readers to draw their own conclusions.”

When you don’t put out messages to inform or educate the community, rumors take control of the situation and spread like wildfire, agrees Laderman.

Even if the only response you can give is “Per university policy, that is an internal matter we are not able to discuss,” it’s better than nothing at all, says Laderman.

Of course it’s not possible to address or correct each and every false statement on the Internet, but as long the official university message is available to all, then you’ve done your best to protect the university, adds Laderman.

And while it’s possible to blow an incident out of proportion, it’s almost impossible to address the matter too frequently, says Jolley. A greater risk is providing coverage that is not effective — that does not inform, that frustrates constituents, that leads them to wonder how the actual crisis response (and not just the communications) is being handled.

Which Audiences to Address

“The challenge with crisis communications for universities and colleges is the wide range of audiences that need to be reached,” says George T. Sopko, vice president of Stanton PR & Marketing. There are students, students’ parents, faculty, staff, alumni, media (local and/or national), government officials, recruiters and more — and each constituency needs a somewhat different and customized message.

For example, if an institution is church-affiliated, the church may also need to be informed of the crisis, says John Brooks, director of media relations and news for North Park University in Chicago.

But less critical situations don’t always call for addressing all audiences, adds Velasco. However, when all audiences are addressed, responses should be tailored to each audience.

Velasco also notes that at Biola University, the PR team advises the school’s departments about whether or not they need to address their audiences as well.

In terms of media, invite communicators into the conversation early, and be ready to respond — because the questions will come, says Brooks. The institution should appear forthcoming, and not appear as though there is something to hide or cover up.

According to Brooks, responses to news organizations should:

  • Stress that the institution is aware of the issue and taking it seriously.
  • Summarize concerns for anyone who may be affected.
  • Emphasize a safe campus environment.
  • Explain actions that have been or will be taken to respond to the crisis.
  • Show that the university is cooperating with police (if necessary).

Always address the students, parents, alumni and general public too, because it’s a chance to secure their support on an issue and strengthen connection to the university in general, explains Jolley.

The biggest mistake schools make when communicating around a crisis is not putting enough personal elements into communications, especially in terms of reaching students, says Sopko. “What these tech savvy students really want and need are more traditional, in-person communications with a sincere human touch.”

Meetings, gatherings and small group discussions — both organized and informal — are most effective in reaching students, says Sopko. “They allow the institutions to set the right communications tone, but also experience first-hand what’s needed or missing in terms of helping students deal with a crisis.”

Social media is another great way to address university constituents, says Brooks. Social media gets the word out quickly and to audiences that might not be reachable in any other way.

Additionally, an unaddressed crisis will be addressed by somebody, and it seems likely that will happen in social media channels, says Brooks. “Respond quickly and in as many forums as possible. You want to be heard early — you don’t want others speaking for you.”

“Anything we address on our website or via an email to our constituents would also be addressed on social media,” says Jolley. The immediacy of social media also allows flexibility in posting incremental updates as information becomes available, she adds.

Sharing the Outcomes/Consequences of the Crisis

When possible, sharing the outcomes of a crisis is an important part of keeping your university community informed, but be sure to protect the privacy of your students when the consequences pertain to their academic or disciplinary records, says Jolley.

“The college or university does not want to expose the identity of anyone who has been victimized, nor does it want to expose the identity of anyone who has been accused,” says Brooks.

Consequences are typically not publicized due to FERPA laws, explains Velasco. Defer to the school’s legal department.

Focus on the institution’s response instead, and try to portray it in the best light possible considering the circumstances — even if the person or persons in trouble make their punishments public on their own, says Brooks. “Assume that disciplinary conversations are private.”

Don’t throw any individuals under the bus, agrees Laderman. If the university is at fault, then admit fault, and immediately address how the university is going to fix the matter to ensure it will never happen again.

But it’s not just about proving to the world that the university has handled a situation responsibly, says Laderman. It’s more about doing the right thing and letting all constituents know that the university will strive to do better.

Laderman says the real key with university crisis communications is: Did the university actually learn from its mistakes to ensure that they’re not made again in times of true emergency?


Written by Grace Lavigne, editor of ProfNet, a service that helps journalists connect with expert sources. Dear Gracie is published weekly on ProfNet Connect, a free social networking site for communicators. To read more from Grace, check out her blog on ProfNet Connect.

1 Comments on Blog Post Title

All Points PR 11:25 EST on Mar 9, 2012

Despite working hard to mitigate any chance of negative news or online banter, the truth is it happens. If these unfortunate instances arise, and you’ve hired a public relations firm to help you, they can quickly take action to provide its clients with a plan to respond, often before the media even take interest. Being prepared with a crisis communications plan is the key to alleviating worry, preventing further discussion or media coverage and protecting brands.

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