Special Edition: The College or University President in Crisis Response and Recovery

retro microphone in black and white

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 2010-2014 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 institutional leaders and their media relations staff.

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 the following 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 the article “The President’s Role in Crisis Recovery” for more. The third article in this set, “2 Presidents’ Advice for Campus Leaders in a Crisis,“ taps additional advice from former University of North Carolina Wilmington Chancellor Rosemary DePaolo and former Texas A&M President Ray Bowen.

2 Case Studies

Finally, read 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.

In the first case study, 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.
  • 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.

In the second case study, 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.