The President’s Role in Crisis Recovery

retro microphone in black and white

The media this week featured the work of Brandeis University’s new president, Frederick Lawrence, who is tasked with guiding Brandeis through its recovery from both a financial crisis and a reputation crisis. In his three-month tenure at the institution, Lawrence has spent one-third of his time on the road, visiting with donors, alumni, and other stakeholders, and considering new plans for the much-disputed Rose Museum.

What the case of Brandeis illustrates is the critical role that an institution’s president has to play during the recovery phase of a crisis. As the public face of the university, the president will be looked to for leadership, transparency, and for clear answers about the details of the situation and the institution’s future.

To gain a better understanding of the steps a president needs to take during this sensitive period, we turned to Cindy Lawson, assistant to the chancellor for marketing and communications at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

Inadequate Responses

First, certain responses, Lawson warns, are entirely inadequate. These include:

  • Deciding not to talk about the crisis — especially with the media — in hopes that the situation will “go away”
  • Failing to take responsibility for the crisis

In the first case, Lawson notes that the hope is a false one — the situation rarely “goes away” on its own. “Timely and informative communication from the institution, directly to constituent groups, is critically important. With today’s technology, there is no need to solely depend on the media to ‘tell your story.’ List servs, friends and followers on Facebook, tweets, and retweets are just a few of today’s social media tools that can be used to communicate directly with constituent groups.”


Read our February 2010 article, “Crisis Communications: Lessons Learned From Lynn University,” to see a best practices benchmark for crisis communications.

In the second case, choosing to “point fingers” or make excuses may magnify the damage to the institution’s reputation — and the president’s. Lawson cites the case of one president at the University of Colorado who attempted to excuse or rationalize sexist comments that had been made by a member of the athletic department. “The excuses resulted in her termination from the university,” Lawson notes.

The Critical Steps to Take

Cindy Lawson advises that the key steps for which the president must take direct responsibility are the following:

  • Promptly investigate the cause(s) of the crisis
  • Promptly communicate the results of the investigation and the action steps that will be taken to prevent or mitigate a similar crisis in the future
  • Periodically report on the progress of those action steps
  • Reach out personally to various constituent groups to restore confidence in the university

The investigation needs to be undertaken with both speed and sensitivity. “Because of the tendency for in-house investigations to be perceived as less credible or less objective,” Lawson cautions, “it’s often helpful to bring in an outside entity with expertise in the particular area that was at the center of the crisis, to conduct the investigation.”

If the institution is concerned that its reputation has been negatively effected by the crisis, the investigation can also include market research or perception research with one or more target audiences (students, faculty and staff, parents, alumni, donors, legislators, etc.). “This type of research,” Lawson remarks, “is especially helpful in crafting messages to help restore an institution’s reputation and credibility.”

The steps a president commits to take to mitigate future crises need to be both actionable and transparent. Lawson suggests these examples to illustrate the point:

  • In the case of embezzlement or mismanagement of funds, the removal of the individual(s) who were responsible for the oversight or crime
  • New financial processes or “checks and balances,” such as a better division of responsibility and regular audits.
  • In the case of an accident, the elimination of the risk factors that caused the accident in the first place (this may even include eliminating time-honored campus traditions, as in the case of the Texas A&M Bonfire collapse in 1999)

It’s important that the steps be clear, and that progress be reported openly and accurately to the institution’s constituents and to the media.

In the Case of an Incoming President

What about the role of a new president who takes the institution’s helm during the recovery phase?

In the case of certain crises (scandals, seriously negative audit findings, racism, etc.), Lawson notes that “the simple fact that a new president is on board may go a long way toward sending a clear message that the institution is ‘under new management’ and that things are going to change, presumably for the better.”

What’s especially important in delivering on that promise, Lawson suggests, is that an incoming president be briefed fully on the crisis, including sensitive information:

  • The causes of the crisis
  • The political issues surrounding the crisis
  • The key constituent groups that have lost faith in the institution

Ensuring that the new president is fully informed, Lawson advises, is critical to helping him or her determine the best course of action to address any issues that have surfaced, restore confidence in the institution among various constituent groups, repair the institution’s reputation, and complete the road to recovery.