Crisis Communications: Lessons Learned From Lynn University

The January 12, 2010 earthquake in Haiti left four students and two faculty from Lynn University (Boca Raton, FL) missing, and for several long weeks, no definite information was available about the whereabouts or the security of the missing persons. During the long rescue and recovery, Lynn University kept the campus community, the families of those missing, and more than 900 media professionals informed and current at every stage of the crisis. We asked Jason Hughes, former director of public relations at Lynn University and now director of marketing and communications at Beloit College; Laura Vann, Lynn University's media relations specialist; and leading crisis communications expert Cindy Lawson, for advice on what best practices institutions can learn from Lynn University's crisis response.

"Lynn University has established a best practices benchmark for future crisis communications. This should be a case study for university media relations professionals. I think it was impeccably done."
Cindy Lawson, DePaul University

The Emergency Alert

Lynn University's communications strategy during the recent crisis relied on a well-tested and well-prepared emergency alert system, in which alerts arrived in inboxes and were posted to a separate website that kept a running log of the updates. "We needed to have it easy to use from anywhere," Vann remarks.

"Set up your alert system in such a way as to keep your communications as open and honest as possible. Make this a priority."
Laura Vann, Lynn University

According to Lawson, what was especially progressive about Lynn University's use of their emergency alert site was that they did not limit the alerts to factual updates. The alert site also included reactions from the president and those who were close to the individuals who had died, notices of when a press conference or a candlelight vigil would be held -- not just new facts. "You saw everything, all in one place, at one time," Lawson remarks. "This has literally been a chronological log of all communications and all new information."

Lynn University also allowed the families of the missing students to use the alert site to post their own notices -- including a joint statement of appreciation and request for privacy. "When the families feel the need to use the media," Hughes comments, "we can facilitate that."

By putting out so many alerts and by keeping one central site for all messages having to do with the crisis, Lynn University was able to:

  • Offer consistent messages throughout the crisis
  • Ensure everybody received the messages at the same time
  • Reduce speculation and rumors

In fact, when an agency on the ground in Haiti did feed Lynn University false information, the running log of alerts on the website made it extremely easy to track what information arrived and when, what the campus response was, and how and when the misinformation was discovered. This allowed Lynn University to tell a coherent story to the campus community and the media.

Lynn University has kept the archive of its emergency alerts during the several weeks of the Haiti crisis publicly available. "Everyone should read it," Lawson advises. "It is a phenomenal communications blueprint."

3 Key Takeaways

Besides preparing a very intentional and well-tested alert system, Jason Hughes and Laura Vann offer these 3 takeaways from their experience managing communications during Lynn University's search for its missing students and faculty:

  • Identify your priority audience -- and focus on them
  • Respect the messengers and the media
  • Time and prioritize your communications to the maximum extent possible

Focus on Your Priority Audience

"Your main audience is always the campus community. Remember who your real audience is and prioritize your efforts accordingly."
Jason Hughes, Beloit College (recently Lynn University)

"In a tragedy such as this," Lawson comments, "the campus community needs to come together, bond together, grieve together. Those are emotions they need to share with each other, that don't need to be privy to the whole world. Lynn University was effective in making it very clear when parents and families were asking for privacy." And when the families were ready to talk with the media, Lynn University facilitated the conversation through the alert system.

When asked how the marketing and communications office can support and interact with families during a crisis involving missing or deceased persons, Hughes adds, "Listen to them. Listen to what they need."

Respect the Messengers

"When you are managing communications in a crisis, you want to control the messaging to the extent that you can."
Cindy Lawson, DePaul University

In a crisis, it is critical that your university become a consistent and primary information source for reporters. You can make the media your ally by:

  • Directing them to your alert site for information updates, and working with them to ensure that the public is also directed to your site
  • Being prepared with a subscription list of media professionals who will receive your alerts in their inboxes
  • Allowing additional media professionals to sign up for those alerts from the alert website during the crisis
  • Responding to media requests, even if you have nothing to relate

Vann opted to return every phone call and every email from media. "Although our main audience was the campus community, we did want to make sure the media felt like we respected their needs and their wishes. If they needed pictures or information that I could locate, I did. If I didn't have anything, I contacted them personally and referred them to our alert system." By directing media regularly to your alert site, you can address most of their needs while keeping your main focus on the needs of your campus community.

Time and Prioritize Your Communications

While you have to respect your audiences and the messengers, you cannot let the news cycle run your communications strategy or your schedule. Hughes and Vann advise sticking as much as possible to timed conference calls and statements. Recognize that there may be times when you need to step back and prioritize; you can only offer so much. "Our president said he wasn't going to do the morning shows, the cable networks," Hughes recalls. "Nor can the president have personal meetings with every constituency. Make conscious decisions and prioritize. Keep a sense of priority and purpose." When you cannot respond to an information request, route those making the request back to your alert site.

Testing Your Crisis Communications Strategy

"One of the things that worked to our immediate advantage is that we had practice."
Jason Hughes, Beloit College (recently Lynn University)

Over the past several years, Lynn University had repeatedly tested its crisis communications strategy. Their crisis management team was used to working together smoothly, and had been engaged in frequent "what if" planning; the university had an alert site ready, their web developer was prepared to launch it at short notice, and the marketing and communications office had a clear plan for posting updates and for interfacing with the media. "Although we had never seen anything like this, and hope never to see anything like it again, we had the tools in place to get our message out easily, quickly, and consistently."

"My first day on the job at Lynn University in 2006," Hughes recalls, "I met our vice president at the Academic Impressions Crisis Communications Institute in Pittsburgh to begin refining our existing crisis communications plan. The 'muscle memory' that was so essential during the recent crisis, the practice and the familiarity with our defined role and the tools that we needed to carry out that role, were built in large part at that conference. We really benefited from it. I still have my notes from that conference on my desk."