The case for thoughtful crisis communications preparation in higher education

This month, the Infinite Brief blog is focused on discussing crisis communications issues that are of importance to our clients, colleagues and peers. As part of this, we'll look at how different types of organizations can prepare thoughtfully for an array of reputation-damaging scenarios, and provide tips for implementing tools that will help them respond to any crisis they might face. 

Today we spotlight the education sector, providing background on the specific, real-life threats that universities and colleges face, and showing how schools might use some of the tools that have proven so useful to organizations outside education.

Planning for on-campus disruptions can minimize reputational damage and reduce impact on recruitment and endowments


This August, several higher education institutions were thrust into the spotlight and dealt with crisis situations. Members of the University of Marylands football coaching staff were accused of systematic abuse after a player collapsed and died from heat exhaustion. Investigation into the Ohio State University football program led to the suspension of popular head coach Urban Meyer, who overlooked domestic abuse allegations involving one of his assistant coaches.

Headlines have not exclusively come from athletic departments, however. Harvard Universitys admissions office was sued by Asian-American students for alleged bias; both the students suing and the university have been offered support in a case likely headed to the Supreme Court. Race issues also arose at the University of North Carolina, where protests, counterprotests and the toppling of a Confederate-era statue have sparked discussion over state universities’ obligation to keep memorials aligned with controversial histories.

These crises have implications that often go beyond the obvious. In 2015, the University of Missouri faced a maelstrom of headline-grabbing hunger strikes, racial incidents and massive protests. “Official inaction” from the administration catalyzed the initial protests, and the university’s belated attempts at reconciliation, which included the eventual resignations of the chancellor and president, and the appointment of a chief diversity officer. Though commendable, these changes came too late to appease discontented students, alumni, parents and community members.

By 2017, as reported by the The New York Times, the university’s freshman enrollment had dropped more than 35% and budget cuts had forced the temporary closure of seven dormitories and elimination of 400 staff positions. The this year saw another drop in enrollment, as well as the elimination of 185 positions and layoff of 30 more staff members due to a major deficit.

Universities tend to be complex but highly siloed, making them less nimble and often slow to respond to crises. In addition, their constituents have divergent interests, leading them to react differently and expect various remedies based on how a crisis affects them personally.

Given these difficulties, the time to assess a university’s risks and build an effective crisis response system is long before a crisis occurs.

Although planning for every possible contingency is impossible, identifying and training a team of professionals who understand the school and its vulnerabilities and can mobilize quickly when necessary minimizes potential threats to the university’s reputation and lasting legacy. Critically, this team must be trusted by the board to make decisions and experienced enough to know when to act and when to stand down.

Well-prepared universities will also have a crisis communications playbook that includes drafts of holding statements for the media, internal and external audiences, and a variety of social media channels. The plan should be based on a combination of insights gained from on-campus security assessments and lessons learned from previous experiences of dissent or protest on campus.

Managing risk at universities includes having a field of vision that goes beyond the immediate present. Officials should constantly be asking: How will what’s going on behind the scenes at the university affect the audiences the school cares about? And don’t overlook any key stakeholders. Alienating important constituents by failing to include them in communications is a surefire way to breed a crisis.

Social media is a great way to monitor changing sentiment in real time and to reach a variety of audiences with tailored messages. Being aware of online narratives and using those channels to further promote consistent messaging is critical.

Lastly, outside help, in the form of legal, PR, budget analysis, forensic investigation and more, can make the difference between an intense, lingering crisis and a nonevent. The longer universities wait to see how a situation plays out, the worse the incidents become and the harder it is for the outside experts to do their jobs effectively. To add to this, universities increase their risk of litigation by sitting on bad news.

As we learned from the fallout at Mizzou, a school’s reputation is everything. Often the real damage from mishandling an incident isn’t fully seen or felt for years. The good news is that while no organization is immune to these risks, crises are largely foreseeable, manageable and, if handled properly, can be an opportunity to show students, parents, alumni and others how seriously a school cares about its constituents.

Zach Olsen oversees Infinite Global's crisis response and reputation management group. Zach’s extensive crisis preparation and crisis management experience, built on his ability to help clients respond quickly and effectively to difficult situations, has helped make him a go-to practitioner for a range of clients, including public entities, law firms, financial services institutions, healthcare companies and C-suite executives in the US and abroad.

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