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Meeting Demand for Response to Current Events

Seven guiding qualities for campus communications on critical issues

September 14, 2017
 
 

In our current environment of breaking news stories, there’s an increasing expectation for college leaders to quickly, definitively and publicly address significant societal issues that are igniting controversy in communities and on college campuses nationwide.

Last week’s headline that President Trump is ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which provides undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as minors the opportunity to work and study in the U.S., comes just as the school year is underway. With approximately 800,000 individuals that have DACA status, the decision to end DACA will have far-reaching impact on and off college campuses. 

Just last month, the white nationalist rally that took place in the college town of Charlottesville erupted in violence that resulted in three deaths and multiple injuries, bringing the debate about free speech to the surface again. Additionally, when natural disasters hit, colleges and universities must act quickly. Those in the path of hurricanes Harvey and Irma have needed to make sure that students are safely evacuated, and will need to offer continued support in the aftermath of these storms.

So with the increasing regularity of major news affecting college campuses and college students, what is expected of higher ed communications today? As internal and external stakeholders are looking to campus leaders to weigh in on issues that are playing out in the news, on social media, and at rallies and protests, following are seven qualities that can help guide communication planning and responses.

  1. Transparency – Share information and updates on issues that impact the campus, acknowledging any legal restrictions that may limit the level of detail you can provide. Archiving public communications about critical issues on your website will make the information about your institution’s response accessible, easy to share, and readily available for all audiences to reference in the future.
  2. Speed – With a 24/7 news cycle and social media channels, timeliness is important. Even if you don’t have all of the answers, if there is widespread concern on an issue, letting your community know that you are aware of the issue and the community’s concerns will go a long way in keeping the issue at hand from spiraling into something larger. Lack of response will invite unrest, criticism, and unnecessary scrutiny.
  3. Consistency – Speak with one voice and provide clear messages—don’t waiver. Develop cohesive communications to internal and external stakeholders: board members, students, faculty, staff, alumni, parents, donors, and the media.
  4. Confidence – Develop a greater awareness of issues facing your community members and higher education in general. Assemble a core crisis communications team that can readily and thoughtfully respond as needed. Your community members need to know that there is strong leadership in place that will continue to keep them informed and communicate about important issues.
  5. Authenticity – Communicate in simple, straightforward and concise sentences.
  6. Sensitivity – Use appropriate language. Don’t lose sight of how an issue impacts people—offer support and provide contact information for resources including links to web pages, email addresses, and phone numbers.
  7. Compassion – Be empathetic and communicate a clear understanding of how an issue impacts all audiences, including the community at large.  

Whether proactive or reactive, keeping these qualities in mind will help to ensure that your communications reinforce your institution’s values and its commitment to all community members. This approach will strengthen relationships and create confidence in the school’s ability to lead in sensitive situations. 

Carole McFall is vice president of public relations at The Castle Group where she works with the agency’s higher education clients.

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