As the coronavirus continues its spread, higher education is bracing for its possible impact. Institutions are pulling crisis management and communications plans off the shelves and some are finding that their plans aren’t providing the kind of guidance and support they were hoping for.
Instead of closing the cover, making a mental note to put a plan refresh on the to-do list for this summer (along with one hundred other things that, most likely, will get shoved aside for the priority of the moment), and taking an ad hoc approach to another crisis that likely wasn’t included in your plan anyway, I encourage you to rethink your plan entirely and to start that work now, today.
Here’s a roadmap to help you build a set of tools that will work for you and your institution no matter what the universe throws at you.
Distinguish between critical incidents and reputational issues. Review your existing plan with an eye to this distinction. Critical incidents, like fires, power outages, and server crashes, aren’t necessarily predictable but the steps to mitigate and address them usually are. Reputational issues, however, are nearly impossible to predict and can do as much—if not more—damage to an institution over the long term. While you won’t be able to create a checklist approach to reputational issues, you can build a more robust capacity to track and potentially mitigate them before they become all consuming.
Build a plan that is nimble enough to address both. In recent years, many institutions have started moving to an all-hazards approach to crisis management—building the capacity to manage and rebound from the most likely issues they will face, instead of worrying about planning for every issue they could potentially face. We have advocated for a similar approach to crisis communications for years. Building a plan that outlines a response to every possible terrible thing that could befall your institution is time-consuming and fruitless.
Instead, build a plan that provides the things you’ll need no matter the crisis. This includes a structure for your crisis response group(s) that outlines everyone’s responsibilities and backups for each role, an audience matrix (more below), an inventory of communications channels that includes who owns them and who can access them, and external resources available to you, whether that’s local law enforcement, national organizations or external partners.
Build an audience matrix. In a crisis, you’ll need to communicate and do it quickly. Having an exhaustive list of audiences—from students, faculty and staff to local elected officials, placement site contacts, or overseas study abroad staff—will save you precious time when you need it most. Match that audience matrix with the channels you have to contact them and who owns the channels and you’ve got the beginnings of a comprehensive and timely crisis response.
Consider special populations or issues. Do you have a campus across town, or in another state, or overseas? Does your institution operate a hospital, or an early college high school, or shared athletic facility? Think through the special populations or arrangements you have that may necessitate their own crisis plans and start drafting them now.
Know your tools inside and out. Is your emergency alert system opt-in or opt-out? How long does it take your email system to push to all addresses? Are there limitations built into any of your communications platforms that will impact your ability to send timely, possibly frequent messages? How many people can have access to your tools, and what happens if wifi is down or cell coverage is spotty or power is out or the tool experiences a service interruption? These are questions that are better answered in advance than in the midst of a crisis—and any limitations or special situations should be carefully detailed in your crisis communications plan.
Know your baselines. In a crisis, emotions will run high and basing a strategy on emotion and anecdote (“The alumni are up in arms on Facebook!”) is never a good idea. Encourage your digital team to mine their existing data in order to identify what a “normal” day looks like on social media and on your website so that you can contribute valuable data and context to conversations that may otherwise be running on emotion.
Identify your external resources and consider putting them on stand-by contracts. External resources, like legal, crisis communications, social listening, call center and web hosting support, should be identified well before you need them—mid-crisis is not when you want to be vetting firms. TVP Communications works on a stand-by basis with several client partners to provide issues management support and crisis support as needed, saving them time and effort when things heat up.
Build an after-action protocol. Many crisis communications plans include a protocol to review incidents after they conclude. Very few, in our experience, are followed. This is perhaps the most vital part of any crisis plan—if you can’t capture what went well in your response and what needs to be modified or strengthened for next time, you run the risk of colleagues beginning to disregard the plan because they see it as flawed or not addressing a key part of the response. Get everyone around the table for a blame-free conversation about how the response went, what needs to change for the next crisis, and who is going to take responsibility for modifying the plan. If necessary, consider engaging an outside partner to facilitate this conversation.
Set a tempo for review and training. The good news is that, in our experience, senior leadership is more open to investing in crisis communications and related training than they have been in the past. We recommend a three-part approach to review and training: First, have an outside partner review and offer suggestions to update, modernize and refine your crisis communications plan. Second, plan a crisis training exercise for your senior leadership in which your crisis communications partner can engage in small group and one-on-one conversations to surface vulnerabilities and concerns from the president and cabinet, followed by crisis training and a tabletop exercise for the entire senior team and another for the communications staff. Third, plan media training for those most likely to serve as spokespeople in the event of crisis. This may feel like a lot, especially for an institution that hasn’t placed priority on this kind of hands-on engagement with crisis communications review or training, but it’s important work that will pay dividends the next time your institution is facing a challenge or a crisis.