7 ways higher ed. communications teams can prepare for a crisis.

Universities and colleges operate in many ways like mini cities. They are often self-sufficient with a variety of services and some campuses are set off from major centers, making them geographically remote. The people who teach, work and study at higher ed. institutions typically come from diverse backgrounds from all parts of the country and globe. Which is why when it comes to the team that handles your institution’s internal and external communications, there is virtually no difference in how day-to-day and crisis communications are handled from those who work in any other major industry.

Your in-house communications department should be self-sufficient.

What it does mean is that your in-house communications department should be self-sufficient. It may on occasion require the expertise of an external agency – especially if there are a lot of moving parts, tight timelines, a crisis or emergency event, or when staffing levels are short. But the fundamentals of approaching daily and crisis communications remain the same.

Is your higher ed. public relations story newsworthy?

When you’re planning a higher ed. media relations campaign, it’s a good idea to evaluate whether you actually have a newsworthy story on your hands. ED’s PR team has put together this quick and easy quiz to help you determine whether your institution’s story is likely to earn media coverage for your college or university.
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Seven tips to prepare higher ed. communications staff for crisis communications.

Here are seven ways higher ed. communications practitioners can prepare for a crisis:

1. Talk to your college or university’s key higher ed. stakeholders every day, even outside of a crisis.

We spoke with a college communications director, who says one of the best ways to prepare for crisis communications is to set up regular check-in meetings with key stakeholders – well outside any crises.

“We regularly ask them, ‘What keeps you up at night? What sort of changes are coming to your departments or programs? What are students talking about in class or on social media? What are the potential issues? Who else do we need to talk to?’” says Conor Lloyd, APR, Director of College and Public Relations at Red River College.

Keep the check-ins to a format where conversation happens, as opposed to email. That two-way chat is key to asking the right questions and getting important details – items that might not come up in written exchanges.

Everyday conversations can warn us that, for instance, changes are coming in the industry or the labour market, he adds. In research and learning environments, there’s a lot to learn from – and to consider – when it comes to external stakeholders. Employers have a vested interest in the outcomes of the college’s applied research programs, for example.

“The information gained from those conversations allows us to adapt curriculums or programming. Having those conversations ahead of time allows us and the programs to communicate those changes well before they take place, and before speculation or rumour starts,” he says.

The more doors you open on a regular basis, the more visible and trusted your department becomes until your team is an automatic part of all integral conversations. Even if at the outset the topic doesn’t appear to be, or never becomes, a communications matter, the work is worth the investment as it gets to live in your crisis communications plan.

And of course, crises aside, those conversations are the ideal mechanism for you to discover opportunities to celebrate faculty, staff and student successes.

2. Get ahead of any higher ed. crisis to control the narrative and avoid speculation.

Once you’re talking to people, your timeline is going to shift. You’ll start working further back in time, which is going to do wonders for what lies ahead. In almost all instances and for the sake of transparency, it’s ideal to communicate situations internally and externally – broadly, as early in the process as possible. That means using all your channels – owned, earned, social and maybe even paid – to tell even your niche audiences what happened and what you’re going to do about it. And maybe even to apologize. The faster you can do this, the faster you’ll stem rumour and speculation, the less it’ll look like scandal, and the faster it should go away.

Even so, crises can erupt quickly and without notice. When this happens, take immediate action. YOU want to be the first to inform your audiences, not news media or social media. Many PR practitioners will be familiar with the line, “tell it all, tell it fast, tell the truth.”

Lloyd offers the following three steps when forming this messaging:

  1. Announce what happened, even if you don’t have all the details yet.
  2. Explain what you’re going to do to fix it.
  3. Offer your support and a channel for that support to be sought.

He adds that when you have more information, go back and provide an update until it has run its course.

3. Prepare a university or college communications plan long before a crisis hits.

We already spoke about having a crisis communications plan. It’s standard industry practice that during an emergency situation, such as an act of violence or a natural disaster, you must be ready to release a public statement within minutes – regardless of how little or much is known about the issue at the time. How you handle and approach this is 100% dictated by the work you will have done long beforehand – hopefully years in advance.

Your pre-approved crisis communications plan acts as a kind of template with potential scenarios, messaging, and tactics to match. It will serve as your panic button and will go a long way in giving you confidence and assurance when emotions are high, time is short, and you need it most. You may call yours something else – and it’s likely to involve your own organic processes.

“I use a crisis response handbook, which is created out of all of my meetings with our stakeholders. It identifies when we’re actually in a corporate crisis. The handbook is part of our crisis-ready program, because it needs to be fluid and adaptable.”

Conor Lloyd – APR, Director of College and Public Relations at Red River College

But whatever it’s called, your plan should be a living, password-protected electronic document – accessible online to your entire team and key leadership 24/7.

And once it’s there don’t forget about it. Schedule a time every month for review and updates, especially as procedures evolve; staff, org. charts and passwords change; and as new scenarios and outcomes are learned and experienced.

Same goes for non-emergency communications crises. Although you may have slightly more lead time before you need to issue internal and external messaging, you should have these scenarios drafted out – ready to be tweaked – when the times comes.

“Post-secondary institutions are communities, so we tend to tell everyone about everything. And when it’s a major issue, our senior leaders will go into the classes to talk about it.”

Conor Lloyd – APR, Director of College and Public Relations at Red River College

For instance, most higher ed. institutions have gone through the experience of a faculty member who has had an inappropriate relationship with a student or students. As unfortunate as this recurring story is, it would be short-sighted to not have procedures and communications in place for handling this issue. Some may even go so far as to proactively communicate it to internal and external audiences – ahead of anyone else, especially media.

That last point may send your guts into a tailspin. And for good reason. But time is teaching us that the corporations, industry and higher ed. institutions who call out and own their mistakes, take responsibility, and then do something good with it – are not only getting ahead of it, they’re earning respect and building trust.

This approach to crisis communications likely has the most equity with your primary audiences, such as prospective and current students, talent and academics who will value your transparency and courage.

And when it comes to day-to-day communications – even as something seemingly mundane as proposed parking fee increases will be best served if you can get ahead of it and tell people it’s coming. This gives your audience time to ask questions, provide feedback and digest – even if ultimately they don’t like it. Not only that, but by giving them a channel for feedback and listening to them, even if you can’t incorporate that feedback, you’ve treated them like a true stakeholder and given them more reasons to feel invested in your institution.

4. Be service-oriented in your approach to higher ed. communications.

It may seem odd to think about the communications department as providing a service, but that’s exactly what you’re doing. Think about it: When a reporter comes to you looking to interview an expert at your university or college, what do you do? Given that positive or neutral news coverage benefits your institution and the expert, under normal circumstances do you enthusiastically agree to help them, or do you set it aside and ignore it? You help, of course. As fast as possible (because you risk losing the opportunity to an external expert, and because you know the reporter has a deadline). In other words, you’re providing a service and a good one at that.

“It always boils down to, how does one issue or scandal affect your people, the product you’re providing, and the service you’re offering?”

Conor Lloyd – APR, Director of College and Public Relations at Red River College

It’s no different when working with your internal audiences. Once you’ve worked hard in building visibility and trust, and in proving your value and expertise to your department to administrators, deans, directors, faculty, the board of governors, strategic advisory councils and staff, you must be ready to serve them in the same manner.

The fun part is, this is where – wearing your communicator’s hat – you get to ask questions and look at it from all angles. Your approach may be something these groups are unfamiliar with. All these groups may frame the issue from the standpoint of their own hard-earned expertise. You get to, too.

5. Embrace change management principles within your higher ed. communications approach.

When change is on the horizon, the principles of change management can help. Based on your approach as a service-oriented department, the following three rules can guide you:

  • Get involved as early as possible so you can be prepared to communicate.
  • Ask: How can we support you?
  • And ask: How can we respond if it starts to escalate? We want to be prepared and we want to help you prepare so that it does not escalate into a crisis or scandal.

6. Move your college or university’s needle towards proactive communications.

When coming into a new role, inheriting your institution’s existing approach can mean your day is spent putting out fires rather than anticipating them. Ongoing controversial headlines and nasty social media posts put you, and your stakeholders (especially your students and their parents), at risk of fatigue and exhaustion. It’s time you moved the needle from reactive to proactive communications.

How do you do it? As already covered, it starts with the simple act of talking with your stakeholders. That open channel is kind of like a time machine that gives you a window into the future. Those conversations will inform you of what’s to come so you can plan and prepare, enhance communications, and even change its course based on your insights. In time, you will earn trust within your institution, which will see that you’re invited to the table for a variety of top-level and not-so-top level conversations – each worthy of your unique communicator’s lens and input. When that happens, you’ll start moving from reactive to proactive.

Even when a scandal rears its ugly head unannounced, you are technically working in that proactive space because your plan has a template for that. All you need to do is adapt tactics and messaging for the current incident, fast-track approvals, and release.

7. Accept that you can’t plan for everything that post-secondary crisis communications may bring.

Even the best communicators can’t anticipate that tomorrow, the most out-there story you can imagine is going to hit your campus. Likewise, there are instances when you’ve had months to consult and plan, and things still go sideways.

“Sometimes in issues management, you have to play for a tie.”

Conor Lloyd – APR, Director of College and Public Relations at Red River College

It’s times like these you will take a page out of your own book by turning that challenge into a professional opportunity. Learn from it, update that plan, and remind yourself that you’ve done the hard work. And as you support your stakeholders and community with compassion, you just might turn that challenge into something bigger and better than you started out with.

If we are to fully embrace communications in the purest sense of the profession, and aim towards getting administration and leadership buy-in, then the communicator plays an essential role as the broker for every action, or non-action, your university or college undertakes.

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