There’s never a good time for a crisis, but the months leading up to May 1, the all-important decision (and deposit) day, are particularly inconvenient. They are also prime time for crises to break, and if January has been an indication of how the rest of the spring semester will go, institutions should prepare for an extended media relations balancing act.
While crisis-related communications must take priority when a situation breaks, other media outreach can only be put on hold for so long—particularly when it is time sensitive, promotes your mission, is connected to an event, or paid for by grant, donor or state funding. True crises—ones with the potential to harm a college’s reputation both short- and long-term and impact yield—typically remain in the news cycle for weeks and months, not days. A scandal like the one at Michigan State will be reported on for months and years. Stopping the flow of positive stories out of the university indefinitely will only allow for further damage and compounding impact on your admissions, donations and community goodwill.
So, how can media relations professionals effectively manage crisis communications while also pushing out stories and information that will attract accepted students? Here are a few tips to make a very difficult charge a little easier.
Strategy is always important, but it becomes even more critical when trying to break through during a crisis. The stories you choose to pitch in the midst of a crisis are those that advance your mission and tie directly to important institutional priorities. You only have a small window to tell the good news stories, and they won’t carry over into multiple news cycles the way negative stories do. This means they must make a big impact in that short timeframe. Highlight areas of the institution removed from the source of the crisis and topics that are evergreen sources of confidence-inspiring news. If you’re dealing with a situation in athletics, focus on something in the academic or student affairs departments. Or if you are charged with sharing athletics news, consider the places in which athletics, academics and your community overlap. Shift to those topics that give broader insight into the institution.
Reporters will still ask about your scandal during the interview, and the article may include mention of your crisis. (In fact, it probably will.) But broadening your approach will provide a level of distance that allows your story to be told without being completely overshadowed by the bad news. Also, remember that written opportunities allow the institution’s news to be told by your students or faculty members in their own words.
Reporters will view the stories you are pitching with greater scrutiny and the outlet’s online team will add hyperlinks to coverage of your scandal. Make sure that your campus leadership and your board expect the links to negative stories, synopses of your crisis and rehashing of public sentiment. What you might have considered a neutral story prior to the scandal may now be a win.
And remember that metrics are important. Ask your colleagues in admissions and advancement to add in a few questions to their event and information session evaluation forms to provide you with insight into how your coverage is being viewed. Provide some of these data points with your reports of media placements so that you are including tonality summaries of the pieces and noting how key audiences are receiving them.
Carefully consider inclusion of campus leaders
Those in leadership positions are likely to be involved with the handling (or mishandling) of an issue on campus and will be part of any review or appeal process. It is harder for them to deflect questions and focus on the story they want the institution to tell and do so in a way that feels genuine. There is a time and place for your president and other senior administrators to respond to crisis-related questions, but when the goal is to tell another story, using them as spokespeople is distracting and detrimental. If they’re the only ones who can tell the story you want to tell, hold it until the crisis has peaked and the institution is recovering.
The president or chancellor doesn’t always have to serve as spokesperson for the institution, including on non-crisis topics. Now is a great time to have content-specific leaders share their thoughts on topics they oversee and for you to include depth of opinion, voice and perspective. It also provides you with a safe way to test the waters with additional campus voices, especially if senior leaders traditionally insist that only they should represent the institution.
And you may need to undertake the difficult task of explaining to senior leaders that their political capital isn’t strong enough to carry a story even after a crisis has waned. Part of our “other duties as assigned” includes letting leaders know when they are too damaged or distrusted to take on that communications role.
Even the most seasoned media participants will benefit from additional training, particularly when bad news is swirling. Anyone doing a media interview on behalf of the institution following a crisis, even on unrelated topics, should receive training specific to the incident. It may be as simple as assuring faculty being interviewed about their scholarship that it’s okay to decline to respond to unrelated questions, or working with them to direct journalists to the media relations office for comment on any problem or crisis situations. Provide suggested talking points about the situation and help them to hone in on key points about the news they’re getting ready share. Ensuring members of your community feel comfortable and prepared is critical. If they consider themselves vulnerable, then they may not be willing to participate at all. So support them during the preparation process and thank them afterward, making sure they understand how impactful their participation was to the institution.
When a crisis breaks it becomes priority number one. In the early days, crisis communications are time consuming and there is little opportunity to work on much else. It is frustrating and disappointing to pivot from implementing your communications strategy. You will miss opportunities to tell stories you’ve spent time researching and prepping. You will be sidetracked from rolling out communications that build toward your brand.
However, with longer-lasting crises, coverage tends to ebb and flow, providing windows of time for carefully considered pitches that help reestablish the institution and provide reassurance to accepted students and donors. Take advantage of those windows to focus on the ongoing good things happening on your campus. Doing so will not only help balance coverage, it’ll help to keep you balanced during stressful times.