Working in Higher Ed: Great Crisis Communications Training

If you’ve worked in higher education public relations you know life on campus never gets dull. All sorts of crisis situations will confront you. Just this week, the Binghamton University community was shaken by the second murder of a student within five weeks. Some 70 miles to the north, my alma mater, Syracuse University, suspended [Update: expelled] a fraternity after a video surfaced that contained lewd behavior as well as racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic and sexist comments.

You might have to deal with professors who make controversial statements, athletic rules violations that warrant sanctions, corrupt officials, sexual misconduct and – far too often – mass shootings. Relatively speaking, I got off easy during my ten years at City College of New York. I came after Professor Leonard Jeffries got everyone riled up over anti-Semitic remarks and left before President Lisa Coico was forced to resign in a scandal involving misuse of funds.

Charles_Rangel_Chairman
When Rep. Charles B. Rangel was found to have used Congressional letterhead to solicit donations for an eponymous center at City College contributions for the project dried up.

Not that everything was peaches and cream. When a cover story in the New York Daily News reported that a room on campus was named for a terrorist and a convicted cop killer, it provoked tremendous outrage, especially in the police community. The sign over the door was taken down the next day, but the controversy reignited seven years later when the community organization that was using the room was thrown out.

There was also the fundraising scandal for the Charles B. Rangel Center. City College hadn’t done anything wrong, but Rep. Rangel did, and he was censured for his actions. Nevertheless, prospective donors abandoned the project and the center had to be scaled back from its lofty aspirations.

These two incidents occurred at a time when public support for higher education remained high. Both the college and its parent, City University of New York, had engendered goodwill as a result of reforms and favorable publicity.

But the worm has turned. Public attitudes toward higher education have become less favorable, especially among conservatives and Republicans. People feel the price has become too high relative to the benefit. The conversation in the media about college is now focused on scandals, tuition hikes and reduced government support, topics that reinforce this narrative. Meanwhile stories about student success and other favorable topics receive short shrift.

In this environment, people charged with protecting an institution’s brand must have a good crisis communications plan that can be put into effect quickly. It should cover the kinds of situations that can occur on a campus, and it should address all affected stakeholder groups, not just the press.

In executing the plan, communicators need to develop succinct, consistent messages that: 1. Sincerely express empathy with affected persons. 2. Address the institution’s point of view and what near-term steps it will take to rectify the situation. 3. Discuss how it will look to prevent similar events from occurring in the future. For example, after suspending the fraternity responsible for the video, Syracuse Chancellor Kent Syverud announced the university planned to conduct a “top to bottom review” of Greek life on campus.

Spokespersons should deliver their statements and avoid engaging in disputes with journalists. Q&A talking points should anticipate likely questions and include responses that draw the audience back to the school’s message. We used email to communicate with journalists to ensure our statements would be accurately reported.

Time is of the essence in crises. Communications chiefs should be empowered to make decisions and have access to the people who have vital information that needs to get out to stakeholders. Working out of an ad hoc situation room facilitates this conversation. Waiting for higher ups, who could have ten other matters on their agendas, to approve statements puts you behind the eight ball, especially when negative comments can be tweeted in an instant.

Speaking of social media, both official and unofficial channels need to be monitored during a crisis. Social media managers should have statements at their ready. I experienced this first hand when I tweeted about lengthy delays on my mother’s recent flight to Florida. An airline representative tweeted back at me within minutes.

Contingency plans can not anticipate every crisis. However, they can serve as a playbook that communications leaders and their teams can readily adapt when new situations arise. A CCO who knows how to successfully manage crises will be an invaluable member of the institution’s leadership team.

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