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Problems and Crises Abound– Are You Ready?

Something beyond falling snow seems to be in the air and blanketing our campuses. A read of The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed the past few weeks shows that the season of random occurrences, fluke luck, problem situations and crisis stories is upon us. While there isn’t a way to prepare for all situations, there are some questions you need to ask yourself and perhaps some items to add to your to-do list.

  • Have you developed criteria for determining the difference between a problem and a crisis? Some situations need TLC and/or leadership expressed, some require a hands-on and direct approach, and others really are just the equivalent of ginormous snowballs that run away and need minimal repairs (hat tip to Reed College for their appropriate response). Know the differences between the different types of situations.
  • Do you have a sense for when you will have media relations/communications/spokespeople represent a situation and when you will have campus voices speak on behalf of the institution? Each situation is unique, but I suggest determining guidelines in advance for making these decisions.
  • Have you identified administrators, faculty and staff who can represent a cross section of potential topics? Are they credible and trusted internally and externally? Ask yourself about the comfort levels of these individuals to be the public face of the institution and whether or not they need media training. If they aren’t interested or trainable, then you need to find new go-to communicators.
  • Do you have individuals who can and will defend your institution on social media? Do you have a way to connect with them quickly to ask for their help and a mechanism in place to thank them for their support? The worst time to try to enact supporters is when you need them most. Solicit their willingness to participate before you are under the gun and give them a test run by having them share your good news, too.
  • Do you have the necessary lines of communication in place to advise your president and board chair on communications strategies? If you haven’t built a relationship with them in advance, develop a plan to eliminate this professional and institutional liability before a problem or crisis exists. Should you need to make the case for having access to top leaders, I recommend reviewing resources CASE has available online for its members.
  • Have you identified peers who can serve as your support system and/or sounding board? Our jobs are stressful and the hours can be really long when addressing a crisis. Make sure you have a cadre of people who can recharge your energy and spirits on the longest of days and share a hug (if only, metaphorically, by email or on the phone) at the dreariest of moments. Even the stories that may eventually be funny are draining while dealing with them.
  • Are you building relationships with the media who cover you? Similarly to building networks of supporters, the worst time to introduce yourself is during a crisis. Consider making time to meet for coffee or have an introductory meeting, or offer them an exclusive on a story about your campus (real news, not the fluffy stuff we sometimes try to feed them).

And finally, know that the best and worst of responses provide insights for future communications approaches. Consider telling your story to your peers through written pieces and presentations. It’s always informative to hear the story-behind-the-story. For many of us, lessons learned are how how we tighten up our future approaches.