10 Ways to Bolster Crisis Communications Planning

Your summer to-do list.

July 5, 2016

There is never downtime in higher education—there’s simply a shift in priorities. The summer months provide an opportunity for strategic planning, reporting, advancing new initiatives and connecting more deeply with colleagues. It’s also a valuable time to reflect on crisis communications. We know crises can occur at any time, but the summer months may provide a reprieve as the campus activity slows down during this period.

The last step of any crisis communications plan should be to review the work of the team and make adjustments to improve communications in the future. The following 10 recommendations for crisis communications are the result of this review process and could be useful for PR professionals and communications offices at higher education institutions.

1. Update your crisis communications plan, and review it. Repeat.
Ask yourself who knows the plan and who has reviewed it recently. Oftentimes this work gets put on the backburner because there are other actionable and immediate priorities being worked on—commencements, recruitment events and overall managed chaos throughout the semester. Take the time to read through your plan and make revisions that are relevant to your environment (e.g., are there new staff on the institution’s crisis response team or has your institution implemented a new text messaging platform that needs to be incorporated into the plan?).

2. Be prepared.
Think about crisis communications and management often, so when the inevitable happens on your campus or shows up in your inbox, you aren’t wasting time thinking about what needs to happen and how to respond effectively. A crisis will never go as planned, but doing as much proactive planning in advance of a crisis will go a long way. Consider different scenarios, such as sexual assault, student behavior issues, town/gown relations and litigation, and then map out how to best respond.

3. Assess the situation thoroughly and quickly.
The crisis response team needs to act with a sense of urgency. Make sure communications has a seat at the table when issues are being assessed. It’s important to review the issue/crisis from all angles and understand the opportunities to address it. Input from the entire crisis team is invaluable as it provides a more comprehensive perspective and can elevate anticipated reactions and possible new challenges, as well as opportunities.

4. Communicate in a timely manner and with purpose.
What’s the message, who needs to know and when? Being proactive, open and transparent can help build good will. Recognize what information stakeholders need to hear and want to hear as part of message development. Remember faculty, staff and students first. Alumni and donors are a close second and will likely have a strong reaction based on the institution’s response and what is reported in the news. Be responsive to media and communicate key messages to better manage reputation and risk.

5. Show compassion.
Make sure your communications are genuine and empathetic, not cold and corporate. Reflect your institution’s culture and have an authentic voice. You will gain increased support and it may help move your organization away from the issue at hand.

6. Understand the broader context.
Obviously, the issue at hand is the focus, but knowledge of the surrounding environment is important. It’s helpful to know if the issue is one of several, a standalone, first in the region or a national issue. Knowing about other issues taking place on campus and any upcoming events (e.g., admissions and alumni) are factors to consider. 

7. Partner with legal.
It’s critical that legal counsel weigh in on all communications and is included in strategy and planning meetings. They bring sound guidance and perspective around current and future litigation concerns and have deep knowledge around the issue, and potentially others, to help shape messaging. It’s also important to maintain confidentiality and privileged communications. A strong relationship will elevate thinking around other considerations to factor into what can and cannot be said.

8. Listen to the dialogue taking place around you.
Be mindful and attentive to what’s being said about the crisis, the concerns being raised and any rumors, especially as they can snowball quickly. On a college campus, the buzz can happen almost immediately. Monitor social media channels and the media, including comments to stories. This understanding will help head off any growing concerns and misinformation and put the institution in better control of the narrative that will be communicated through holding statements, talking points, audience-specific communications, Q&As and other materials.

9. Activate a social media plan.
Social media can add to the 24/7 frenzy. It’s important to listen to the conversations taking place and design an appropriate engagement strategy. It could run the gamut from posting all communications and responding to posts, to going quiet and communicating directly with a follower. Know all of your channels—from the Dean’s Office to athletics—and which matter most. Make sure there is clear communication with these groups in advance of a crisis, about strategy, how they can support efforts and what actions are acceptable. Finally, make sure any current content being posted does not come across as insensitive in the context of the current issue.

10. Identify and train your media spokesperson.
Put yourself in the shoes of the stakeholder to determine the optics of a message being delivered by different people. This exercise will help identify the most appropriate spokesperson. Also, college presidents can benefit from training just as much as deans and other divisional leaders. The time to do it is now.

Living by these recommendations will help you grow stronger in crisis communications and effectively communicate on behalf of your organization. Do you have other recommendations to share?

Jamie Kelly is vice president, public relations at The Castle Group, a public relations, digital/social media and events agency based in Boston, MA. 


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