Building a campus’ proactive crisis communications program

How a solid crisis plan can advance the PR office’s reputation and credibility
By: | Issue: November, 2014
October 24, 2014

It had begun like most fall mornings on a college campus. The air was crisp and the sky was clear as students, faculty and staff prepared for another day. The difference this day was that a host of state and local police officers, EMTs and paramedics had converged on the administration building. A staff member had been found dead, an apparent suicide, just an hour before classes began.

News of the incident quickly spread across the small campus and moved throughout the community. Chatter on social media sparked rumors of a gunman atop the administration building, firing down at students. The college’s switchboard came alive with calls from frantic parents and various media outlets.

Within 30 minutes, however, the college’s public relations office, working with law enforcement, the coroner and president’s office, had provided the community with details of the tragic incident that had taken place. Like turning water off at a faucet, rumors and fears had been allayed. A state police officer later described it as “textbook crisis communications management at its best.”

Just three weeks earlier, the college’s first crisis communications plan had been presented to the cabinet. For those of us who serve as spokespersons for our institutions, it is important that we have communication procedures in place to manage a campus crisis.

Proactive approach

Crisis communications management is often a reactive measure. But the most effective public relations managers are those who are proactive. These tips can help as you develop a proactive crisis communications plan:

  1. Talk to your president. Understand the president’s expectation of your role and how you should communicate when there are warning signs of a possible crisis—or when one actually occurs.
  2. Meet often with campus leaders. It is important that key players, including vice presidents, deans and department chairs, know who you are and how you manage your public relations operation.
  3. Develop strong relations with the media. Reporters must know they can count on you to provide honest, accurate and timely information in a crisis.
  4. Maintain good relations with key safety personnel. Meet often with your institution’s public safety and risk management officers, as well as with your local community’s chiefs of police and fire operations. Long before any incident occurs, they need to know who you are and how you manage crisis communications.
  5. Be aware of potential situations. This can be achieved by monitoring social media and listening to students, faculty and staff. Analyze the information and determine whether it warrants reporting to the president and members of the cabinet. Often a communication crisis can be prevented if there is time to respond internally.
  6. Don’t give more life to a crisis than it deserves. It is far better that you confront it in a timely way and note how your institution plans to address the matter. When proactively managed, your crisis will be significantly reduced.
  7. Hone your personal skills. Do you present yourself as a steady, calm, articulate, mature voice for your institution? What might you do better the next time? Take note of how corporations and other colleges and universities handle crises.
  8. Review your plan. It should include contact information for key constituents, the crisis communications team, emergency personnel, local officials, media contacts and campus leadership. It should note web and social media accounts managed by your institution’s public relations and public safety offices. Keep the plan updated to reflect changes in personnel on- and off-campus.
  9. Do a follow-up. After a crisis, take time to ask those involved—including the media, law enforcement and emergency agencies—to critique your institution’s communications efforts. This will help to better position the institution and the public relations office as trustworthy organizations during smooth and not-so-smooth times.

Marc C. Whitt is associate vice president for public relations at Eastern Kentucky University, and a member of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities Advisory Council on Communication and Public Affairs.