6 Things Presidents and Chancellors MUST Do to Prepare for a Crisis

Open road in area with lots of forrest


This article was adapted from interviews conducted during the course of preparation for chapter 3, authored by Cindy Lawson, in Managing the Unthinkable, Crisis Preparation and Response for Campus Leaders, edited by Gretchen M. Bataille and Diana I. Cordova, Stylus Publishing, LLC. 2014.

Throughout my long career in public relations both at a Fortune 500 company and at five different higher education institutions, I have had the privilege of working with some great presidents and chancellors.  Together, we faced a number of crises, including a tuberculosis scare, a chemical lab mishap, a natural gas explosion, fires, electrocutions, kidnapping, active shooters, bomb scares, rapes, plane crashes, multiple deaths resulting from car crashes, tropical storms and hurricanes, drownings, suicides, murders…and many more. With each crisis came lessons learned – for individual responders, for the president/chancellor and for the institution as a whole.

I interviewed several of those (now ex-) presidents and chancellors about the various crises each experienced.  I asked them what advice they would give other presidents and chancellors in terms of preparing for any type of crisis. Following are their, and my, top six suggestions:

  1. Don’t wait for a crisis to happen. Create a task force charged with identifying your university’s vulnerabilities and risks — whether in the form of protocols, processes and procedures, overseas exchange or academic programs, facilities, infrastructure, safety measures and so on. Then identify specific action steps to address each vulnerability or risk. As budgets allow, address those vulnerabilities and potential safety issues. Do it now. An ounce of prevention is more than worth a pound of cure, especially when lives and safety are concerned.
  2. Because campus safety is paramount, having the best possible crisis response protocols in place is critical. As such, contract with an outside crisis response expert to evaluate your institution’s crisis response and crisis communications plans. Too often university leaders either put their heads in the sand, denying that anything could possibly happen at their institutions, or they become defensive, rebutting individuals who dare question existing practices and protocols.  Included in that review and analysis is ensuring that your institution’s protocols reflect the incident command system protocols, now required by the federal government.
  3. When looking for your top communications person, select an individual who has had significant experience in crisis communications. After all, a well-managed crisis may not be perceived as being well managed if your communication efforts are poor. Similarly, a crisis that is not well managed may be perceived as being well managed if your communication efforts are well executed.
  4. Surround yourself with people who have a huge amount of common sense and take advice from them. That includes taking advice from your lawyers.  However, do not allow them to drive the decision-making. In the end, doing the right thing is far more important than worrying about preempting any legal fallout that may ensue as a result of the crisis.
  5. Crisis circumstances should not be met with protocol paralysis. Knowing that the decision-making process during a crisis is often one that requires quick assessments and decisions, allow your subordinates do what they do best. Support them with resources and in whatever ways you can, but don’t micro-manage them.After the Texas A&M University bonfire collapse that killed 12 students and injured another 12, President Bowen empowered his senior leadership team to make whatever decisions were necessary, even without his approval, because he realized that the pace of the crisis was faster than university procedures would support. Decisions had to be made “right then, right now.” At some point within the first hour of the collapse, I remember asking President Bowen, whom I barely knew (I had been at Texas A&M for only four months when the stack collapsed), “How do you want to handle the crisis communications response?” I was deferring to him, because I had just left a university where the chancellor always wanted to micromanage everything, especially the media. I wasn’t sure what role President Bowen really wanted, or even expected, to play when it came to media relations. “That’s what I hired you for,” he said. And then, looking me directly in the eyes, he added, “Just do the right thing, Cindy.”It was such a simple directive, but it was an empowering one. I knew that if I let the “right thing” govern my decision making, I would have his total support. The others on his leadership team felt likewise. Clearly, because the decision-making process during a crisis is often one that requires quick assessments and decisions, chancellors and presidents need to let their subordinates do what they do best. That is why it is critical to surround yourself with people who can make effective decisions and do the “right thing” in a crisis.
  6. Make sure your senior leaders are familiar with your institution’s crisis response protocols and plans.  Practice those plans and protocols several times a year, whether in the form of table-top drills or full-scale exercises.  Managing a crisis without knowing the plan or the role each senior leader should be playing during any given crisis situation can create a simultaneous secondary crisis—namely, a management crisis or even a void of leadership altogether. It’s the last thing you want, or need.  With practice, crisis response becomes automatic. Practice drills and exercises also provide an opportunity to identify your institution’s vulnerabilities and provide the impetus for making changes to those plans before a real disaster strikes.  Moreover, because crises often involve other local, state, and federal agencies outside the university community (e.g. fire department, police department, FBI, health departments, and various United Way entities), practice drills and exercises provide senior leaders the opportunity to network with those individuals whom they will interact in a crisis and to learn how those agencies’ protocols interface with those of the university.  Finally, practice drills provide presidents and chancellors an opportunity to assess how particular senior administrators may operate under stressful circumstances.

For more ideas and suggestions for senior leaders during and after a crisis, be sure to check out the book Managing the Unthinkable, Crisis Preparation and Response for Campus Leaders.


Read Academic Impressions’ complimentary Special Edition: Planning for a Crisis, featuring advice and specific scenarios from Cindy Lawson and other crisis communications experts.