Special Edition: Planning for a Crisis

How ready are you to communicate with key constituents and with the public during and after a crisis at your institution?

Drawing on interviews conducted in 2010-2012 with crisis communications expert Cindy Lawson, Academic Impressions offers you this bundle of complimentary articles unpacking some of the thornier issues in crisis communications. We hope these resources will be useful to you.

Cindy Lawson handled public relations in the wake of the tragic 1999 bonfire collapse that killed 12 students at Texas A&M University. Today, Lawson is one of the key thinkers in crisis communications for higher education, presenting frequently on the topic and offering recommendations to media relations professionals from institutions across North America. She currently serves as the vice president for public relations and communications at DePaul University.

Here is some of her advice for media relations professionals.

Did You Plan for This?

WHAT IF YOU LOSE EMAIL AND THE INTERNET?

While most institutions now have a full crisis communication plan in place to allow their communications office to communicate with the emergency response team, the campus community, local entities, and the local media during a crisis, one particular contingency often goes missed: what if the crisis that occurs includes a sustained electrical outage? Your campus email, your emergency website, your institution’s twitter feed, and many of the communications systems you would rely on in the event of a crisis will be unavailable to you in the event of a regional power loss (such as that seen, for instance, during Hurricane Katrina).

Lawson cautions: “It’s so obvious that often we forget to ask it. If you can’t send email, if you can’t get people on the phone, if you were to abruptly lose your communications infrastructure, what would you do? I have seen some campuses drill an electrical outage for 15 minutes, but you really need to think about this with a long-term view. What if you have an electrical outage that lasts for a full day, or for several days?”

In our May 2012 article “What Might Be Missing from Your Crisis Communications Plan,” Lawson provides a checklist of the questions Lawson suggests that you ask as you develop a contingency plan for communicating with your campus community, local entities, and the media during an electrical outage.

LEVERAGING THE POWER OF SOCIAL MEDIA

Handled appropriately and well, social media channels can empower campus communications professionals to disseminate critical information widely and virally during and after an emergency. Lawson explains: “Social media allows you to be your own publicist, bypassing traditional media to communicate directly with your constituents. Politicians and celebrities are already doing this regularly.”

Lawson recommends adding these items to your crisis communications plan:

  • Create social media “blind sites” that can go “live” in the event of a crisis
  • During a crisis, assign staff or volunteers to monitor social network sites, just as you would monitor traditional news outlets
  • Have a plan in place for using social media channels (housed on external servers) as a back-up in the event that other communications infrastructure fails

Learn more in our article “Including Social Media in Your Crisis Communications Plan” — including examples of specific uses for Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube.

The Role of the President

PREPARING THE PRESIDENT TO SERVE AS A SPOKESPERSON DURING A CRISIS

“Crises are defining moments,” Lawson remarks, “and therefore, the choice of chief spokesperson is crucial. There are times when the president/chancellor is the best spokesperson.  There also are times when the chief communications is the best choice, and, to be sure, there are still other times when subject experts may be the best choice.”

In our October 2012 article “When a Crisis Occurs: The President as Spokesperson,” we interviewed Lawson for:

  • Guidelines to consider when opting to have your president/chancellor as the chief spokesperson
  • 6 tips for how your chief communications officer can best support or equip the president as a spokesperson

A CLOSER LOOK AT THE PRESIDENT’S ROLE

Drawing on lessons from Brandeis University’s recovery from a financial and reputation crisis as well as other cases, Cindy Lawson and Academic Impressions offer guidelines for the president’s role during crisis recovery, including:

  • Examples of inadequate responses to a crisis
  • Critical steps the president needs to take
  • What an incoming president needs to do to manage a crisis recovery

Read our March 2011 article “The President’s Role in Crisis Recovery” for more.

Crises Involving Students

WHEN STUDENT BEHAVIOR BECOMES A MEDIA CRISIS

Our December 2010 article “When Student Behavior Becomes a Media Crisis” offers tips for image management and reputation recovery after a media crisis related to student behavior. If an institution does not take prompt action after a crisis — and indeed, proactive action prior to a crisis — to build a more positive image, the negative image can persist for years.

Among the questions addressed:

  • What can a college or university do to mitigate a perceived debacle related to student conduct?
  • How should the institution’s leaders communicate with the student body to promote behavioral change?
  • If the media has jumped on the incident, what are the right ways for the institution to communicate with the media?
  • What should an institution definitely not do, in communicating with the media on a student behavior issue?

HOW MEDIA RELATIONS PROFESSIONALS CAN PREPARE FOR — AND RESPOND TO — STUDENT WALKOUTS

In 2011, students at institutions across the US used social media to organize walkout days in support of the Occupy Wall Street movement. In our article “Occupy Colleges and Student Walkouts,” Cindy Lawson offers some key lessons learned, with especial attention to how colleges can monitor what it is being said about the institution via social media and what can be learned from organizations that handled walkouts particularly well.

2 Case Studies

Here are lessons learned from two crises that occurred in 2010. Communications around one of these were mishandled; communications around the other offer some critical best practices.

AVOIDING A MEDIA RELATIONS CRISIS: A CAUTIONARY TALE

A release of documents from Laramie County Community College (LCCC) in May 2010 prompted a media flurry and provided a cautionary case of how one college may have mishandled a response to the suicidal behaviors of a student while leading a 2008 class trip to Costa Rica. The incident raised several questions for institutions of higher education, including:

  • What training to provide for faculty and other trip leaders who are taking students abroad, so that trip leaders know how to respond in the event of an emergency and who to contact. (To help address this question, Academic Impressions offered this list of steps to take and this checklist of questions faculty need answers to before taking students abroad.)
  • How to manage communications with key campus audiences and with the media after the incident, so as to prevent or manage the type of media controversy seen in this case. (You can read this May 2010 analysis of what lessons can be learned from how LCCC handled media relations around the incident.)

A BEST PRACTICES BENCHMARK FOR CRISIS COMMUNICATIONS

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.

Providing an analysis of that response a month later, Cindy Lawson concluded: “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.”

We asked Jason Hughes, former director of public relations at Lynn University and now director of marketing and communications at Beloit College, and Laura Vann, Lynn University’s media relations specialist, for advice on what best practices institutions can learn from Lynn University’s crisis response. Read more in our February 2010 article “Crisis Communications: Lessons Learned from Lynn University.”


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