What Might be Missing from Your Crisis Communications Plan

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).

"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?"
Cindy Lawson, DePaul University

For advice, we turned this week to crisis communications expert Cindy Lawson, who is currently serving as the vice president for public relations and communications at DePaul University. Lawson has written a number of crisis communications plans for the institutions she has served, providing for just this contingency. Lawson also successfully managed communications at Texas A&M University during a crisis that included a regional power outage from Dallas, TX to Corpus Christi, TX.

The Checklist

Here are 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:


"Landlines, especially if analog, are tied into the electrical system," Lawson warns. "You need to find out -- in your office, in offices across campus -- which landlines are tied in to the grid, and which aren't? If you don't have digital phone in the office, install at least one. We installed a hotline in my office at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. In an emergency, we knew that we could make and receive calls on that line."

A related question to consider: will you purchase and receive training on satellite phones? Lawson notes: "If all else fails, you can still get messages out to the world via a satellite phone. Even if there is an overload on cellular phones, satellite phones would allow you to cut through the clutter."

Press Releases

How will you issue press releases if your computers, your website, and your campus email are unavailable? Lawson recommends calling around now to find out which local TV and radio stations would still be able to air in the event of a regional power failure. Then make sure you have their numbers and a plan for getting communications out to them.


Do you have an offsite backup for your website -- one that isn't tied in to your own server? Here are a few key considerations:

  • "Although it's convenient to have a backup server nearby," Lawson cautions, "the reality is that if you have a tornado, earthquake, or hurricane that takes out your electical infrastructure, it will likely take out theirs too." Lawson points to the cautionary example of Katrina, when the Coast Guard was one of the few entities operating in the crisis area that had their communications based on a secure, out-of-state server.
  • If you have a backup server off-campus, do you have a clear plan for accessing that server during an electrical outage? "Can you call and dictate messages to someone to get critical communications out, through an office off-site that isn't affected?" Lawson asks.

Your institution's research

"Whether you have bacteria growing in a petri dish or primates," Lawson remarks, "you need backup power generators for your most important research labs to preserve that research during a power loss."

What equipment do your students have?

Most institutions no longer include transistor radios on the list of recommended items for students to bring with them to a residential campus. Lawson recommends keeping transistor radios (and batteries) on the list, citing one case in which students on campus sat in their cars to listen to the radio, then grew bored and began driving, leading to major traffic jams on the campus.

What if there's a fire?

Here's a critical item to check: is your fire resistance tied into the grid, or independent?

Where do you keep contact information?

It's likely that key people on your crisis team have a copy of your crisis communications plan and critical contact information (such as your president's cell number, numbers for local media outlets, etc.) stored on the computer -- and possibly only on the computer in the office. But what if you can't turn on the computer? Make sure that team members have hard copies of both the plan and critical contacts at home, in their vehicles, at the office, and in the emergency operations center.

How will you shut down the institution?

How will you shut down the campus, and how will you communicate that to students, faculty, and staff? Take a good look at your options:

  • If you have significant transportation infrastructure, can you dispatch the news to the university buses, so that drivers can tell students as they get on or get off the buses that the university is shutting down?
  • Can you get the news out through your physical plant? If your physical plant can reach its staff on pagers, you can send them room by room to tell faculty and students that the university is shutting down.

"We can be so dependent on the grid. Most of our crisis communications tools are tied to the grid. If you don't have the grid, be prepared and ready to use old-fashioned means to communicate."
Cindy Lawson, DePaul University


Crisis Communications 10 Years After the Texas A&M Bonfire (November 2009)
This article offers suggestions for deploying social media outlets as part of your crisis response.

Creating a Crisis-Ready Emergency Notification Policy (December 2009)
See a checklist of what's absolutely critical to include in your notification policy, and recommended criteria for when to send out notifications.

Lessons Learned From Lynn University (February 2010)
When the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti left four students and two faculty from Lynn University missing, the 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. Here are best practices gleaned from this case example of effective crisis communications.

Lessons Learned From Laramie County Community College (May 2010)
Here are practical takeaways for media relations and communications professionals gleaned from an incident involving one college president's mishandled response to the suicidal behaviors of a student during a class trip to Costa Rica.

When Student Behavior Becomes a Media Crisis: Mitigation and Recovery (December 2010)
Here are 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.

The President's Role in Crisis Recovery (March 2011)
As the public face of the university, the president will be looked to during and after a crisis for leadership, transparency, and for clear answers about the details of the situation and the institution's future. Here is expert commentary on the steps an institution's president needs to take.

Including Social Media in Your Crisis Communications Plan (May 2011)
Handled appropriately and well, social media channels can empower campus communications professionals to disseminate critical information widely and virally during and after an emergency. Read this article to learn what items you can add to your crisis communications plan.

Occupy Colleges and Student Walkouts (October 2011)
Here are practical takeaways for media relations professionals -- what and how to be communicating in the event of a student walkout.