Proactive Planning for Crisis

Rachel Reuben shares 8 steps to make proactive communication planning for crisis and issues management a priority on your campus.

November 10, 2015

Active shooters. Campus on lockdown. Shelter-in-place. Racial tensions. Votes of no confidence. Bed bugs in residence halls. Inclement weather. Leadership transitions. Mascot changes. Hazing. Chemical spills. Student deaths.

More than ever, there’s a higher volume of crises and issues to manage on campuses across the country. It’s very difficult to be proactive and you never know when the next issue will arise. This is why it’s critical to be prepared to effectively and efficiently manage the situation.

Some of the important questions that answers should be documented for before the crisis begins include:

  • Who can post a notice on your home page at 11 p.m. at night on a Saturday?
  • Who has access to your social media accounts?
  • What about your mass notification system?
  • Where do you store your contact information for key individuals across the university?
  • Where will your communications team meet on campus in the event of an emergency?
  • Where should press gather, and where will you hold press conferences?
  • When is it appropriate to post sensitive information to social media, and whose permission do you need first?

With a host of deadlines facing you every day, it can feel impossible to make time to focus on proactive crisis preparation. Here are 8 steps to make proactive communication planning for crisis and issues management a priority:

  1. Create a core team
    Your core communication team should ideally include two to four people. One person should serve as lead, and that individual should have a backup on this core team in case they are unable to be reached. This is the core team that will be called upon when a situation arises. Smaller issues may only warrant one or two people, but larger issues require more support. An extended communication team should also be defined, which could pull in additional people as necessary.
  2. Create a culture of preparedness
    It is important to create partnerships with key individuals and offices across the university and meet with them regularly to share planning progress. These offices include public safety/university police, environmental health and safety, facilities management, information technology and legal affairs.
  3. Set a standard weekly meeting for preparation and planning, and stick to it
    This is probably one of the more challenging steps. There’s always something more important, or another deadline looming. Set aside a half hour or one-hour block of time at the same time every week on the calendar with the core communications team, and make it sacred. Unless there is a true issue being managed at the time, hold the meeting. Use that time to prepare and work on documentation.
  4. Set a monthly drill time with an extended communications team
    Once each month the core and extended communication teams should come together to practice (drill) a range of extensive topics to test all of their preparation and identify opportunities for improvement.
  5. Update senior leadership and university-wide emergency management teams on a monthly (or at least quarterly) basis
    Keep proactive planning front of mind for the senior leadership and emergency management teams. This will build confidence and trust in the communications team, which is critical to have when the inevitable crisis hits. It also helps build a case for any necessary resources to improve communications in the future.
  6. Educate the campus
    Each semester, send an email to all faculty, staff and students to review communication tactics in the event of an emergency. If you have an opt-in mass notification system, this is another opportunity to encourage everyone to register. Explain how the website, official social media channels, email and outdoor warning systems will be used, and key phrases they should understand.
  7. Know what kind of budget you have available
    If a large-scale crisis happens, you will likely need additional resources, so it is critical to know what budgetary resources and options are available. In addition, find out if the college/university has insurance that provides coverage for institutions to respond to unusual circumstances requiring professional public relations counsel. I’ve worked for two institutions that had “ProResponse” coverage from United Educators. Ask your risk management and/or legal affairs office if you’re unsure if you have this or another comparable option available.
  8. Identify key external partners
    Have a public relations firm on record to assist with reputational risks and prevent escalation of issues. Connect with this firm at least quarterly, and have them on campus for media training to ensure senior administration knows them and is comfortable with them. Separately, partner with local/regional colleges/universities for expertise that they have, additional communication assistance, and space for meetings if your campus is not accessible. If you have local hotels, conference centers or town halls, having a partnership documented with them will also provide additional off-site meeting locations and Internet/phone access if the campus is inaccessible.

What else would you add to this list?

Rachel L. Reuben is a thought leader and consultant in the field of marketing and communications, with nearly 20 years' experience in higher education.


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