As any higher ed communications professional will observe, reputational crisis moments—such as social media eruptions, allegations of misconduct or targeting of campuses by external interest groups—are occurring with increasing frequency. And usually those moments arrive when campus leaders’ plates are already overflowing. Many communications executives and the senior campus administrators they work with can relate to Henry Kissinger’s remark: “There cannot be a crisis next week. My schedule is already full.”
While each incident presents with specific features and nuances, it’s fair to say that none will be well managed if a team is building the plane while flying it. In that spirit, here are five things a communications leader and their colleagues don’t want to be spending time on in the heat of a crisis moment.
- Searching for key employees’ contact info. All too often, an emergent issue tips into crisis outside of the formal workweek, when key players are hard to reach, let alone assemble as a team. If it’s the Friday before winter break, or the middle of a summertime “limited operations” week, can you readily reach your dean of students? The head of human resources? Legal counsel? The team member credentialed to email a message to campus?
- Drafting high-stakes communications from scratch. Just as it’s a best practice among public safety agencies to rely on brief, predrafted scripts for emergency mass messaging—e.g., “storm approaching; shelter in place”—a crisis letter template can be an enormously helpful starting place. Nuance, detail and customization will always be required, but having a basic rubric of important categories to address can speed the process significantly. The same goes for media holding statements: having a readily customizable holding statement template at hand helps avoid unfortunate reporting that the institution “could not be reached for comment.”
- Scrambling to find texts of relevant policies and resources. If the matter might involve a violation of policy, it’s vital that you’re able to cite that policy chapter and verse. Many institutional websites collect all policies in a single subsite. Bookmark it for ready access and ensure it covers the policies most likely relevant to high-stakes issues, including FERPA, academic freedom, freedom of speech and protest, and timely Title IX and Clery Act warnings. Up-to-date links for relevant campus resources to cite, such as the counseling center, employee assistance program and DEI office, are also important to have at hand.
- Fumbling to initiate insurance coverage for reputational incidents. Most colleges and universities are insured against events, whether legal or reputational, that would materially impact their enrollment, philanthropic support or other forms of revenue and business viability. Frequently, that coverage supports hiring external counsel to expand staff capacity and help mitigate ongoing reputational damage. The sooner an institution can initiate a claim, the sooner they can access specialized help.
- Auditioning crisis support partners. It’s human nature to hope for the best and trust that, with good intention, your campus won’t find itself in the crosshairs of public opinion. But it’s a rare institution that doesn’t face a nascent or full-blown challenge to its reputation at some point in its history, whether from external forces or self-inflicted wounds.
Gathering and auditioning a short list of potential crisis communications firms—large and small, higher ed–focused and more broadly skilled—before an issue erupts is a significant step in crisis preparation. When a crisis hits, the ability to call on a pre-established relationship of familiarity and compatibility can make the onboarding of an external partner rapid and seamless, reducing the chance of having to unwind one communications strategy in favor of divergent advice.
To conclude, in stressful situations with complex, competing demands, saving administrators’ cognitive capacity for the highest-value tasks and decisions is imperative. The more tools you can access instinctively and automatically, the greater the chance of managing a reputational challenge thoughtfully and responsively, with resilience banked for the future.