The pandemic made it clear to institutions and businesses that crisis communication is an integral part of running an organization. But for educational institutions, where reputation is linked to admissions, faculty recruitment, and funding, managing crisis communication can be the difference between a severe reputational dent and an institution that appears responsible in handling a challenging issue. With hundreds or possibly thousands of students, faculty, and staff, plus many different types of activity happening on campus—from parties to sports to exams—there is almost certainly going to be some behavior that brings on a crisis even if external calamities don’t bring on the situation. Whether the university is culpable or not, communicating with transparency and speed is just about the only way to handle a problem. In the age of social media, covering up or ignoring a predicament will boomerang and cause much more damage to the school. Therefore, all schools need a plan for communication in adverse circumstances.
Crisis Communications Have Real Impacts on Colleges
Admissions departments will always be dependent on the school’s reputation in recruiting students who are a good fit for the institution. A scandal that garners a long-form news article can cause a 10% drop in applications the following year, and the impact can last for two years. The better a college handles communications in the crisis, the lower the impact on reputation and, thus, applications. Also, a poorly handled problem will taint the institution in more subtle ways for far longer than the measurable hit to admissions numbers. On the flip side, an institution that communicates effectively during a crisis may be remembered for a long time as well as a compassionate, proactive, and transparent organization.
Preparing a Cross-Departmental Team
Knowing that all institutions experience crises, it is not a question of if but of when. Therefore, you need to have a crisis communication plan in place before the inevitable happens. Preparation is vital, and in a large organization like a college or university, a coordinated strategy is necessary to avoid contradictory statements and the appearance of disagreement within the staff.
Members of a crisis communication team should be identified well in advance and led by the director of communications or public relations. Other team members may include campus law enforcement, the president, the dean of students, a representative from the IT department to speed technology-enabled messaging, and the school’s general counsel. In addition, depending on the type of crisis involved, there may need to be representatives called in from the most relevant department to the crisis, such as admissions, athletics, counseling, academic deans, etc.
This team needs to prepare for likely and unlikely scenarios and predict potential target audiences for communications. Part of the work will be to establish objectives and procedures to follow when issues arise. The team is responsible for communicating with the media, students, parents, alumni, and the local community. In addition, the team needs to plan for protecting any potential victims from public access or inappropriate contact and creating plans for moving forward beyond the crisis. As the crisis communication team organizes protocols, they may also identify potential problems that risk-management teams should consider; collaboration between risk management and crisis communication teams can enhance the effectiveness of both efforts.
The Basic Tenets of Crisis Communication
There are many versions of “how to do” crisis communications well, but they mostly boil down to some essential tips that organizations and individuals can keep in mind:
- Plan ahead effectively
- Respond quickly
- Be truthful, transparent, and speak with one voice
As part of planning, coordination between different parts of the institutions can keep the communications on-message, relevant, and avoid confusion. If the university community knows that there is a team to handle communications during a crisis, they can step aside and let the team do its work. Otherwise, you risk a hodge-podge response from faculty and staff who may be well-meaning but ultimately prove distracting or destructive to the overall effort.
The Admissions Department’s Role in Crisis Communications
Though admissions staff are not likely to be on the front lines of crisis communications, the admissions counselors will be dealing with questions and reputational repercussions as they speak with potential students and families. Because of this, the admissions team needs to be in the loop with the crisis communications team’s actions and stay in step with the appropriate messaging. In addition, when admissions teams partner with marketing and public relations, the university will benefit, so admissions is a stakeholder in university communications strategies even when not directly involved. Crisis communication is no exception, so keeping the enrollment staff apprised of appropriate responses to applicant questions should be included in the crisis communication plan.
The upshot is that crisis communication is a part of the standard operating procedures of universities, and having robust planning and coordination will mitigate damage to the whole school, especially to enrollment.
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