When a Crisis Occurs: The President as Spokesperson

Campus in Crisis: Image of red "Emergency Pull" button

At a recent Chicago-area panel of crisis communications experts – a panel attended by media relations professionals from local higher education, government, and business entities – one of the top five questions presented to the experts was: When should your president serve as a spokesperson during a crisis, rather than your chief communications officer?

We reached out to one of the panelists for an in-depth answer. The panelist is crisis communications expert Cindy Lawson, the vice president for public relations and communications at DePaul University.

Lawson offers the following advice.

Interview with Cindy Lawson

AI. Under what circumstances should the president or chancellor serve directly as the spokesperson versus the chief communications officer?

Cindy Lawson. Crises are defining moments, and therefore, the choice of chief spokesperson is crucial.  As much as I might want to offer a clear-cut answer to this question, the reality is that the circumstances surrounding every crisis is different.  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.

Some guidelines to consider when opting to have your president/chancellor as the chief spokesperson include:

  • The crisis warrants reassurance.
  • Trust is at stake.
  • You need to convey the seriousness of the situation.
  • You need to convey leadership or accountability, particularly if the stakes are extraordinarily high, such as a crisis that involves injuries, deaths, serious mismanagement or lack of oversight, etc.
  • You need an expression of compassion, assuming of course that your president/chancellor is capable of using his/her authoritative position to genuinely express compassion.

Indeed, it is a spokesperson’s skills and capabilities – not  his/her position – that really should determine the selection process.  Consider the following:

  • Does s/he have a demeanor that is calm and reassuring?
  • Is s/he convincing?
  • Is s/he credible, believable and genuine?
  • Can s/he relate to the audience s/he is addressing?
  • Does s/he have any characteristics that would detract from the message?
  • Is s/he skilled in appropriately responding to impromptu media questions? 

AI. How can the chief communications officer best support or equip the president as a spokesperson?

Cindy Lawson. In the following ways:

  • Focus on no more than three talking points at any given press conference.
  • Remind the president/chancellor to be compassionate and understanding.
  • If possible, have the president outline the action steps that will be taken to ensure the crisis situation never happens again.
  • Brainstorm all the possible questions (and particularly the negative ones) that might be asked; prepare appropriate responses.
  • Make sure there are subject matter experts nearby who can answer specific questions the president cannot answer.
  • Provide media training for the president.  Practice the questions you have brainstormed.


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.


What Might Be Missing from Your Crisis Communications Plan (May 2012)
So often our communications plan relies heavily on email, the Internet, and all the cyber-infrastructure to which we are accustomed. But what if your crisis includes a power outage? 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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.