Of all organizations, universities are held to the highest standard when it comes to their ability to effectively respond to a crisis. After all, they are entrusted by thousands of families not only to educate, but to ensure the safety of their children. A poorly managed crisis can result not only in diminished trust, but also in decreased enrollment.
In addition to crises that can happen to anybody, such as natural disasters and acts of violence, universities face potential crises specific to higher education. As intellectual hubs, they often find themselves at the forefront of societal issues that carry the potential of causing reputation-damaging controversies.
If you are responsible for crisis management at your school, you need to consider the following four steps to ensure a crisis does not take you by surprise:
1. Identify and prioritize potential crisis scenarios, including those specific to higher education.
While some scenarios are easy to identify, such as natural disasters and violent intruders, think about other scenarios that could damage your institution’s reputation. Such scenarios include handling sexual harassment allegations, gender identity policies, racial tensions and freedom of expression issues.
Universities should start with a comprehensive assessment of potential vulnerabilities to identify gaps in preparedness. It is important to determine the university’s position on critical issues and prepare response strategies in advance.
When a violent attack happened on the campus of Ohio State University in November, 2016, the university was well prepared to respond. The university leadership worked in close collaboration with local law enforcement and distributed timely information through all available channels (e.g., press conferences, website updates, Facebook and Twitter posts). The level of transparency and consistent messaging showed a solid level of preparedness by the school.
On the other hand, University of California Berkeley did not appear prepared to adequately explain why the school’s chancellor installed an escape hatch outside his office to get away in the event of escalating student protests. Security reasons aside, the gesture was interpreted by many as a sign of unwillingness to address student demands head-on.
Two years ago, University of Missouri also found itself less than prepared to address allegations of racism on campus, resulting not only in the resignation of its chancellor, but also in a drop in enrollment.
2. Ensure that your organization’s operational crisis management plan is closely aligned with your communications plan.
Every organization has an operational plan that provides instructions for handling crises such as natural disasters, accidents involving toxic materials and acts of violence. In fact, many public universities have operational plans that follow national guidelines provided under the framework of the National Incident Management System (NIMS) of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
While NIMS plans offer solid guidance for managing response actions, the communications section of these plans is fairly limited and may not be fully aligned with your institution’s communications setup. You may want to supplement the communications section of the NIMS plan with additional level of detail to enable a smooth response.
For example, you may want to assign responsibilities to additional communications team members for tasks not included in the NIMS plan, such as communication through social channels, news and social media monitoring, and communication with parents and community neighbors.
If your university does not follow the NIMS guidelines, it is equally important that you work in close coordination with operations to ensure your plans are aligned. To ensure your crisis plans stay fresh, revisit them at least once a year to ensure they are up-to-date.
3. Use the right channel
The good news is that universities have a variety of channels at their disposal to reach their internal and external audiences in the event of a crisis. Choices range from emergency alert systems, to e-mail, phone, Twitter, Facebook, website, and digital signs.
The challenge comes with deciding how to best match the audiences with the right channels. For example, if students don’t check their university e-mails very often, they should not be used for urgent instructions.
Questions to consider include: Do you provide the same level of detail and maintain the same frequency on Twitter and Facebook? Where on your website do you post updates, the home page or a specially designated page? Since parents are typically not included in the emergency notification system, what’s the easiest way to obtain their contact information to keep them updated?
The answers to these questions will vary to some degree from school to school, but the most important things to remember are:
- Maintain consistency of message on all channels
- Select and maintain a consistent cadence of updates for each channel
- Provide a running update of events on your website and refer to it from social channels
- Include instructions that specify what channel to use for each audience in your crisis plan
4. Ensure Messages Are Clear
Many standard crisis communications messages use language such as “shelter in place” or “go to a safe place.” However, these instructions may be open to interpretation because students and faculty could understand them differently.
Instead, use descriptive language, such as “stay indoors,” “stay away from windows,” “lock the doors,” “go to the nearest building” to ensure messages are clear. If your budget allows, conduct message testing with your campus audiences to ensure your plan uses clear language.
Also, tailor your message to the audience. If your university has students enrolled in online classes, or if your school has multiple campuses, ensure that each audience receives the type of information it needs to stay safe.
Regardless of the type of crisis you may be facing, by preparing ahead of time, you will be able to respond with speed, transparency and confidence.
To ensure your crisis management plan contains the four key steps, download our crisis communications plan checklist.