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The Calm Before the Crisis

Do these things before the next crisis hits to mitigate damage and recover more quickly

January 28, 2016
 

Pick up today’s paper and you’re sure to read about a student protest, racial tensions on campus, sexual misconduct, Title IX or a no-confidence vote in administration. Although these issues and crises have long plagued college campuses, today it seems as if they attract more attention, more regularly. Some of this is due to the severity of particular situations, and some is a result of the 24/7, connected world in which we live. Whatever the reason, pre-planning and attention to current issues gaining momentum in the media can lead to a swift response and resolution to tamp down a crisis before it becomes a recurring headline.

How issues are managed and how an institution communicates to its key internal and external audiences during a crisis critically affect short- and long-term reputational risk. PR professionals are tasked with communicating clear messages in a timely manner, striking the right tone and maintaining a consistent voice. Collaboration across campus departments, a clear understanding of risks and opportunities, and protection of the school’s reputation, are all of great importance.

Several recent high-profile, national crises provide opportunities for reflection. The following are thoughts and reminders that have utility for communications professionals. What you do now, before a crisis, may help you be more fully prepared when the next crisis arises.

Build relationships now

You likely have relationships with the key people you will work with during a crisis. It can only help to build those relationships during a time of non-crisis. Grab a coffee, have lunch and touch base on what’s worked in the past and what can be improved. You may find it makes sense to bring the team together to review the crisis plan and discuss questions. This may be especially helpful if there are new team members or you have been fortunate not to have a crisis on campus for an extended period of time.

Start a conversation

Pose a question based on one of the recent crisis events in the news, or a hypothetical example, to the crisis team to ensure you’re prepared for the issues of the day should something similar occur on your campus. Ask yourselves how your institution would have handled it. The same? Differently? Do you think an organization responded well or was there something off-base or overlooked? Would there be consensus among your institution’s decision makers when time is of the essence?

Do your homework on resources

It’s better to be proactive. Getting a crisis communications firm or consultant involved early in the process will allow you to have everyone on the same page sooner, and will allow a faster response. The outside perspective and experiences they bring to the table are invaluable, particularly as they have likely experienced similar situations and their objectivity allows them to ask tough questions and remain focused on the big picture, without personal biases. They may interpret your messages differently than they were intended, and can effectively and constructively question and challenge actions being taken.

Who would you call if damaging news was reported about your campus or student protests were elevated to a level that caused great concern? You have choices. Doing your homework before a crisis hits to get a short list of crisis management firms will reduce the time needed during an actual crisis. You may even be eligible to access resources through your institution’s insurance provider.

Know your social media channels

What channels are being utilized and who is authorized to post? What’s the most important channel to reach the audiences that matter most during a specific crisis? How do you respond to a crisis via social media? It could be a good time to remind the social media “power users” on campus that the messages communicated during a crisis originate from a specific office (e.g. Communications Department or President’s Office) and the importance of consistency during a crisis. In addition, those unaware of the strategy could unknowingly post messages that appear insensitive or uninformed, counteracting the hard strategic work of the crisis team.

You never know what’s coming next. The first step is thoughtful consideration of what makes the most sense in your organization’s culture. Your proactive leadership and actions will maintain a steady focus on crisis communications and better prepare you and your team for the inevitable crisis event.

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

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