Last week I was on vacation and I had a goal of not thinking of work while hiking through three National Parks. I had some success but also found an analogy to higher education communications best practices, as one does while exerting more effort than anticipated.
Let me back up and set the stage properly…
I read a lot of online news. And before heading off on a trip I do a lot of Google searching, including of local papers and regional websites. I want to know the talk of the town, events we shouldn’t miss and news of the day. I was a bit nervous to read this piece about a bear attack at one of our backpacking trailheads. Then, I found more and more stories about bear sightings and encounters at our selected parks.
After voraciously reading accounts of what hikers should do to prevent a bear attack, I armed myself with a bear bell, a whistle and bear spray. Admittedly, I paid more than necessary for the bell and whistle, because each was decorated with bears, but I couldn’t resist their cuteness and utility. I read the rangers’ blog for Yellowstone, the opinions of experts and coverage of past bear attacks and took notes on what to do and not do. (My favorite tip—you should not apply bear spray on you or your children like bug spray or sunscreen. It is an aerosolized pepper-based deterrent, so this makes sense to me and had never crossed my mind.) And, as crazy as this sounds, I had my husband critique my choreographed response—or as I called it, my bear dance—which he graciously did without laughing at me. He smirked, but he never laughed.
During our variety of stops in the Grand Teton, Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, we talked with a number of other tourists. Based on the signage throughout the parks, above the fold stories in the parks’ newspapers and advice from the park rangers, I was surprised by how few tourists were actually taking it seriously. For those who had encountered bears, they admitted they hadn’t paid attention to the warnings and had reacted irresponsibly. All commented (probably prompted by my judging nonverbal and verbal responses) that they were lucky they hadn’t had something more serious happen, or even something devastating.
That feedback made me freeze (which is, for the record, different than my quite active bear dance). That admission sounded a heck of a lot like our colleagues who have been underprepared for crises and lucked their way out of permanent damage to their institution’s image and reputation.
Erin and I often discuss that the institutions with strong crisis communications plans—those that have feedback loops in place, have built relationships with their constituents, run desktop drills and have clearly delineated roles and responsibilities in place—seem not to face crises quite like those institutions that aren’t prepared. And, often, the prepared institutions are able to address situations when they are problems, rather than when they escalate to the level of a crisis.
We have a few weeks left before the start of the new semester. Dust off your plan, review it with your team and colleagues and make necessary updates before everyone returns to campus. Rehearse your dance and ensure everyone else knows the choreography you intend.
And, for the record, I did see one bear on the trail. As I had rehearsed, I struck my starting dance pose, and even though my dance did its intended job, I was wholly disappointed when the bear looked at me, turned the other way and just walked off. I never even needed my bear spray. Next time, right?