Student protests are changing the higher ed. communications landscape. Are your plans ready?

With student protests, counter-protests and encampments popping up on campuses across Canada and the United States, higher ed. institutions are finding themselves in the spotlight whether they’re ready or not.

If you’ve seen news headlines the past several weeks, it’s not a matter if it will happen to your campus. It’s when.

The ongoing Israel-Hamas war itself is highly complex. In response to the conflict, since October 2023, what students, academics and community have been challenging and advocating for has evolved.

It started primarily with conversations on campuses about freedom of speech and expression, human and academic rights, and safety.

Today, situations frequently include the above plus police intervention, judicial systems, government opinion, and, in the U.S., congressional hearings and potential involvement of the National Guard. Not to mention intense media scrutiny and the intrusion of external agitators.

Know your policies and communications plans inside out.

If you’re a higher ed. administrator or communications practitioner, you’ve not only had to keep pace with what’s taking place on your campus, but you likely will have had to work with officials and media, be responsive and prepared with a vast array of messaging, and know your policies and communications plans inside out – including where your school lands on the many layers of dissent.

Operationally and academically there may be impacts as well. You may have to postpone classes and events, or delay exams and graduation dates – unpopular moves regardless of the circumstance.

You may also need to review your endowment investments, manage communications around serious allegations, and regularly work with police.  

With these constantly-evolving complexities, understandably, many schools have not yet updated their communications plans.

The good news is (hopefully) you already have a playbook. As a higher ed. communications professional, you not only already know the foundational knowledge, you also have a strategic framework filed away – that you can draw from and adapt – in your crisis communications and issues management master plans.

Yes, we say crisis communications and issues management plans because although campus protests can start out in issues management, they can quickly ignite and bring us into crisis communications territory.

Learn from patterns and habits.

ED. has been scanning media stories and industry reaction to the demonstrations. The patterns we’ve observed to date will help provide a quick communications primer as you gear up for your next steps (and update those plans). They are:

  • Remain responsive and transparent. Use all your internal and external communications channels to constantly keep your communities informed about events, no matter how seemingly large or small.
  • Know your policies inside and out and be consistent with voice and stance. Do a deep dive and ask yourself: where does your institution really land on freedom of expression, and do your communications align? Because it all impacts communications and operations.
  • … At the same time, be open to change. Be responsive as new scenarios demand policies and plans of the past to be updated and expanded.
  • Keep your priorities a priority. If, for example, health and safety are your school’s top priorities, they must always be at the forefront as you assess, act and communicate.
  • Work with officials. Keep lines to police, politicians, judicial systems and other officials open. In a crisis of this kind, parties will be inclined to have their voices heard, and media may be drawn to the most resonant voices. Remind the communications teams of your various external stakeholders that you are part of the story and must be included in their messaging and press conferences. Then do them the same courtesy when appropriate.
  • Control your story. Media are speaking to students, academics, police, governments and others – but surprisingly, it’s the school’s official voice that can be absent in the protest stories. Your regular external and internal communications must contain any updates, reinforce your policies and stances, and be heard amongst the myriad of voices and opinions – even if you become repetitive. And ensure your president, chancellor or CEO is visible and accessible.
  • Get OpenAI help. Yes. You read right. Your communications team will absolutely be working and monitoring late into the night, and on weekends and holidays. You’re going to be stretched and fatigued. As situations evolve and arise, even the most experienced communications practitioners could make mistakes. Don’t be afraid to lean on OpenAI to help frame up your initial messaging so you can perfect them on your own.

Scenarios unfolding in the higher ed. space.

So dig out your two important master plans today and apply your well-wrought expertise as you plug in new scenarios that will help you respond to situations that are currently unfolding on campuses across North America. To help prepare, situations currently unfolding include:

  • Calls for resignation of a president
  • Court injunctions
  • Calls for your higher ed. institution to divest endowments from weapons manufacturers and companies with ties to Israel
  • Calls for financial transparency
  • Discrimination, anti-Semitism, racism, etc.
  • Calls for federal governments to stop supporting Israel
  • Concern for Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories

Think long term.

It’s worth adding that an excellent, longer-term process that is 100 per cent worth the investment of time and resources is to strike a committee to review your policies and procedures.

In response to student protests on campus regarding a visiting lecturer, in 2018 ED. client McMaster University created an ad hoc committee that was tasked with reviewing and articulating the university’s many policies related to protest and freedom of expression guidelines.

The committee made recommendations for appropriate principles or guidelines for protests on campus, safeguarding academic discourse, violence in the workplace, event risk management and student rights and responsibilities, among many others. And it has guided that institution ever since.

Social media crisis communications.

Lastly, don’t forget to revisit your social media crisis plan to see if you need to add scenarios and potential responses to be ready for conversations that end up on your social media channels.

If you’re looking for communications support during a challenging time, you’re not alone. Our communications experts are ready to offer guidance, shore up your team, or be embedded 24/7 for as long as needed. Reach out to ED here. 

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