The key to effective crisis communications and issues management is planning – in advance of any crisis or an issue that your university could face. Anticipating the types of challenges your institution could encounter and planning for them proactively will provide peace of mind knowing that any situation can be handled strategically and efficiently.
Most universities, institutions and businesses understand, on some level, that they need to take a strategic approach to crisis communications. Unfortunately, however, rarely do they thoughtfully take the time to prepare properly and adequately in advance of an urgent situation. Doing so allows organizations to respond quickly and in a unified voice in the aftermath of an issue, emergency or crisis event.
When developed correctly, a crisis communications protocol will describe the activities necessary to take appropriate actions and communicate specific messages during and after an event. The goal is that, instead of wasting critical time trying to determine roles and responsibilities, your university immediately is prepared to manage the steps necessary to move through the crisis’ lifecycle – which can vary depending on the issue with which you are dealing. Compare, for example, responding to a damaging nighttime fire in a university facility in which no one was injured, versus a litigious event involving students and university employees that will attract media attention at various times – peaks and valleys – based on legal proceedings and inflection points.
Plan in advance
Every institution has areas of vulnerability. Work with your colleagues to identify the scenarios that could result in a crisis or surface as an issue at your school. This will help you prepare a plan that will be of value in a wide variety of situations and scenarios.
Before developing your protocol, consider that the published document equally must be comprehensive and simple to follow. You cannot cut corners – the protocol clearly must define roles, responsibilities and activities in a manner that is easy to understand, reference and utilize. It should provide structure to your approach while allowing the flexibility to respond to each individual incident separately, so that you are able to stay “on message” and protect your university’s brand.
A list of response activities and the order in which they should take place, including assigning roles to specific team members and identifying a chief spokesperson(s) who can engage with members of the media, faculty and staff, students, families and your community is the foundation of any crisis protocol. The ultimate goal is to direct the crisis situation to a successful conclusion, while maintaining your university’s integrity and reputation.
Position yourself to respond immediately
When a situation or crisis arises, messages specific to the event are needed immediately. As you develop your protocol, consider your institution’s key messages, which will need to be reiterated when dealing with an issue or event. In addition, spend the time necessary to think about anticipated questions that you might receive from faculty and staff, students, members of the community and, of course, the media. Plan some answers to those questions – that exercise is invaluable.
Take the opportunity to hone your team’s skills. Prepare your spokespeople to respond to potential media inquiries effectively. Media training is very helpful, even for eloquent, experienced speakers who have dealt with the media before.
You also should consider how you will monitor the media and social media channels during and after a crisis. There are plenty of tools out there – which ones will work best for your university, and how can you differentiate between the many options? Understand that the perfect monitoring tool does not exist, so give some thought to what you and your office will need to do to supplement any monitoring tools that you might have at your disposal – currently or in the future.
It is critical to recognize that, in most cases, a crisis does not simply resolve, and its short- and long-term ramifications for your university’s brand potentially can be severe. It equally is as important to manage the crisis successfully as it is to continue to promote your school’s brand moving forward. Obviously, a crisis can and likely will impact the ways in which you communicate about your school. However, following a crisis event, you must understand that you have a crisis with which to deal – do not allow your institution to become a victim of the crisis itself.
Danny Markstein is the Managing Director of MarkStein, a PR company located in Birmingham, AL.