In Case of Emergency
The building blocks of an effective crisis communications plan
An effective crisis communications plan is like a good insurance policy. You hope you never need it, but if the time comes when you do, you want it to be comprehensive. Unfortunately, these days it can feel like the embers of potential crisis are constantly burning and fire could be sparked at any time by any number of events – sexual assault, suicide, and other tragedies; student protests, inappropriate social media posts, and controversial action by students or faculty; lawsuits and even leadership decisions.
With so many possibilities, too often an assumption is made that you can’t really prepare for a crisis, so instead of a true plan, what is developed is less a detailed playbook and more a phone and decision tree. Under that approach, when crisis hits, what results is the need to “build the plane as you fly it,” which at best makes for a tense and turbulent ride, and at worst, catastrophe.
While in a crisis no communications plan is a panacea – you still have to respond in real time – it should prepare campus leaders and staff to take quick and decisive action. So how do you create such a plan?
It helps to first start by considering the objectives of a crisis communications plan. An effective plan defines best practices for assessing the situation and determining whether a response is needed; provides guidance on how to implement immediate action should a response be required; and identifies a core crisis communications team with clear roles and responsibilities.
From natural disasters and acts of violence to scandal and controversy, a crisis can take many forms. So how do you determine when to initiate crisis protocol? Your plan should provide a checklist or questionnaire. For example, these four questions can offer a formal filter:
- Will the media, students, the campus community, and/or parents expect the institution to immediately address the issue?
- Will silence be seen either as indifference to the harm the situation is causing, or as an affirmation of guilt?
- Are others speaking about the college or university, shaping a perception among those who matter to the institution? Will they be soon?
- If you wait, will you lose the ability to influence or determine the outcome?
If the answer to any of those four questions is “yes”, then response is advised. If the answer is “no”, then continue to monitor the situation and regularly re-ask the questions until the situation is resolved.
A successful crisis communications response is about more than public statements. Process is paramount. Your crisis communications plan must detail protocol for crises that occur on campus AND protocol for crises that occur off campus, but involve a member of the campus community. The plan should address both since there are factors in each situation that influence how you should respond. All procedures must be customized to your institution, but generally should provide step-by-step, tactical direction on how to:
- Respond quickly to immediate threats to the well-being of students, faculty, staff, visitors;
- Respond to the emotional as well as physical impacts of a crisis on victims, family members, and the campus community;
- Identify the parties that should be informed about the situation, the channels to reach them, and the process to disseminate messages;
- Create statements tailored to each relevant audience (media, students, staff, the greater community, parents, etc.) and identify distribution methods (press release, email, social media, etc.) that communicate the facts about the crisis openly and proactively, while balancing individuals’ legal rights to privacy with the public’s need to know about the situation;
- Start initial internal review as appropriate; ensure appropriate follow through, and evaluate and improve procedures, during and after the crisis.
The plan should also include a variety of possible crisis scenarios that detail how the procedures would be implemented in the event of X, Y, or Z. This is important to help campus leaders and staff understand how the procedures come to life in a crisis event, so they have a better sense of what to expect. Additionally, the examples should include templates that can be used or modified quickly during the initial phases, during the on-going crisis, and as follow-up. These templates should cover everything from a list of questions to guide fact gathering to draft statements.
Roles and Responsibilities
Once you have defined your procedures, you should establish who will be involved in implementation, and in what capacity. Who internally needs to be made aware of the situation and at what stage? Who is involved in decision making? Who has final approval? Who is your spokesperson? Who is the media contact? Who is monitoring and responding via social media? All of these questions, and more, will need to be answered in the crisis communications plan. Ideally, the plan will name a single point person who is responsible for all coordination and knows the status of all activities at all times. In addition to clearly outlining all internal stakeholders, their 24/hour contact information (cell phone, home number), and role and responsibilities, the plan should also note any external resources, like a pre-selected PR firm, available to be called on in a crisis situation.
Sharing the Plan
Once your crisis communications plan has been created and finalized, all internal stakeholders with a role and responsibilities should be given a copy so they understand what is expected of them in a crisis situation. Additionally, all faculty and staff should be made aware that a crisis communications plan has been adopted/updated and given directions on what to do in the event of a crisis situation (how to report a potential crisis event, where to direct inquiries, who is authorized to speak on behalf of the institution, etc.). This includes your athletic director and coaches, and anyone else at your institution who is highly visible. Finally, the crisis communications plan should be reviewed at least every six months for any necessary updates. Each time the plan is refreshed, re-share it with stakeholders and remind faculty and staff of the protocol.
While not exhaustive, these recommendations should help ensure your institution has the communications tools it needs in the unfortunate event a crisis strikes. Hopefully that time will never come, but if it does, you’ll be in good hands.
Lindsey Read is senior vice president, education at Communications Strategy Group, an award-winning public relations firm that specializes in K-12 and higher education based in Denver with offices in Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C.
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