The campus protest has finally ended. A missing student is found safe after 48 excruciating hours. A settlement has been reached following a two-year legal dispute. A faculty member is terminated for insubordination. Breached records have been secured. Now what?
Once the frenzy and heightened attention and activity associated with a crisis subside – they will eventually – and a sense of normalcy returns, focus should shift to your ongoing business goals and a proactive communications strategy.
How the post-crisis phase is handled is of equal – if not greater – importance for the long-term health of your institution. Executed properly and effectively, post-crisis communications can lead to stronger connections with key internal and external audiences, positive brand awareness, and greater efficiencies for future issues management. Because every college and crisis is unique, it is crucial to implement a communications strategy that fits the culture and conveys authenticity.
“What do I do next?”
Here are six clear steps for communications professionals to follow once a crisis has concluded:
1. Review and debrief
Meet with the crisis communications team and check in with others involved with crisis response to candidly discuss what worked and what needs improvement. Use this time as a learning opportunity. Memorialize the issues, key strengths and results/outcomes into a summary report to educate key administrators, trustees and others outside of the core crisis response team. Showcase your good work.
2. Determine next steps
Identify what is next. Assign responsibilities to team members and make sure there is a process for accountability. Do you need to follow up on a promise to share updates with key audiences? Should a speaker be invited to campus to present to students, faculty and staff? Do you need campus-wide training on particular subject matter? Should the president or provost meet with student groups or other constituencies? Put a few target dates on the calendar now so you don’t forget to deliver on what you promised.
3. Build upon the crisis plan
Now is the best time to make tweaks to the plan, especially while what was said and done is fresh in your mind. After all, a crisis plan should be a living, breathing document. Add revised roles/responsibilities, template releases, new social media channels (and owners of these channels), passwords, new team members, and other information that will improve the execution of the plan in the future. For instance, if it took too long to approve communications, post updates to social media or update the website, identify ways to streamline review and approvals to enhance efficiency. Take these steps now to add future value to the crisis plan.
4. Create and execute a strategic proactive communications strategy
As the crisis wanes, determine what can be done proactively to promote a return to normalcy. What new, unrelated content can be communicated with key audiences? Publish fresh, engaging content on the website, in the alumni magazine and school newsletter, Board reports, student newspaper, community impact reports and social media. For example, if the issue was related to a sexual assault on campus and there is an upcoming event about violence against women or men, does it make sense to focus energy on a direct communications piece to the community and publish more comprehensive website content – a story or video?
What positive stories do you have to share? More importantly, when is the right time to engage with editors/reporters after a crisis? Think about what content might help reinforce positive messages about the institution as the result of an issue. Depending on the scope and severity of the crisis, give careful consideration to the timing, opportunities and risks of proactive media outreach.
Consider also whether the issue should be part of ongoing dialogue on campus. Be creative and weave key messages from an issue into conversations and communications, as appropriate. You could be direct and reference the issue/crisis or demonstrate commitment to a cause by interviewing campus leaders or telling stories that promote work in a specific area. You could also highlight feedback from an engaged supporter in a slide deck for an alumni presentation or include in a presidential communication, such as a blog, convocation remarks or a community letter.
5. Pay attention
Things could, and typically do, heat up with little warning. If there is a lingering issue, the institution’s actions (or perceived non-actions) may cause a flare up. For example, if a faculty member was fired for performance or inappropriate behavior with a student and another faculty member is in a similar situation, it is important to make sure that communications are effectively managed and implemented. Learn from the past to make sure you address the situation swiftly and with great care. Be prepared for different scenarios and begin to draft key messages.
6. Don’t forget social media
Continue to monitor your social media channels and listen to the conversations taking place after the crisis subsides. Pay particular attention to external groups that promote a position on your issue/crisis or a call to action, such as a change.org petition. Determine if those movements are gaining traction or remaining steady. Review how you used social media during the crisis. Did it help or hurt the cause? What could you have done better? Determine what role social media will play in the next crisis. Meanwhile, leverage your channels to share positive news about your institution as part of an ongoing proactive communications strategy.
Oftentimes, efforts are rightfully focused on preparation before a crisis arises and managing communications during a specific incident. Spending time in the post-crisis phase may uncover unforeseen opportunities to further build your institution’s reputation, both inside and out. These efforts also help to strengthen the crisis communications team and will make responding to the next crisis on your campus more efficient – and hopefully far less time consuming.
Jamie Kelly is vice president, public relations at The Castle Group, a public relations, digital/social media and events agency based in Boston, Mass.