Colleges: Crisis Communication 101

Reporting to your many constituents on your college or university’s good news may be second nature. But what happens when a staff member is accused of misconduct, a student dies from meningitis, or a sports team is accused of hazing? How does your college respond in the aftermath of an active shooter or violent act on your campus? With whom do you communicate and how much do they need to know?

Each crisis is unique, so your response needs to be adaptable. You’ll need a plan that details who will be part of the crisis team and what steps you will follow to determine your message, how it will be communicated, and to which audiences.

Know Who to Call

While your internal team includes designees from your board, administration, public relations department, and other key areas of your college, you should also consult your college’s attorney and consider consulting with an outside PR firm or media advisor.

Your school’s attorney will be able to advise in the legal matters surrounding the situation and in what information can and cannot be shared with various audiences.

If law enforcement or an investigating body are involved, you also will coordinate plans for communication with them. You’ll work closely together to make sure you do not compromise their investigation in any way.

Research working with a PR firm. Many firms across the U.S. specialize in crisis communication for education and many have Christian colleges as clients. Begin the vetting process before a crisis happens, so you know who to call when you need them. They will be especially helpful in dealing with local, regional, and national media, and in giving advice on managing the complications of social media. They can help you craft a statement to be used with the news media and the general public, as well as statements geared toward your faculty, students and their families, donors, or alumni. Remember, statements you make to your internal audiences, have the potential to be picked up by the news media or shared via social media. Statements may also be used in legal proceedings.

Planning Ahead

Times of crisis are challenging, so maintaining a good attitude in dealing with the news media is important. Your team’s level of preparedness and how you respond to reporters can affect the tone of their articles and newscasts.

Find training: Key staff on your team should consider attending workshops on crisis communication and media relations. Workshops are offered by organizations such as PRSA, IABC, local and national PR and media relations firms, and businesses or agencies within your own community.

Draft a general statement: With guidance from your attorney, create general statements that can form the foundation for a variety of situations. Your public relations director and/or an outside PR firm can help write the statements.

Select a spokesperson: Designate in advance who has permission to speak on behalf of the college. All messages will be communicated through this person - an experienced communicator who can deliver a statement clearly, without embellishing. Select a spokesperson: Designate in advance who has permission to speak on behalf of the college. All messages will be communicated through this person - an experienced communicator who can deliver a statement clearly, without embellishing. Communicate with your employees and students that all requests from the media should be directed to this person. Make sure an email and phone line are available for these requests to be directed to. In the case of a phone line – ask reporters to leave their request and contact information via voicemail. Your spokesperson can respond to them by sending the prepared statement by email. 

Use your website: For certain events, your public statement can be placed on your website, and all media will be directed there. Work with your web manager in advance to create a section of the homepage or another webpage that will only appear, as directed, 
in a crisis.  

Say “no comment” in more than two words: For many situations in which there are legal implications or an ongoing investigation, no comment is the appropriate answer to inquiring news media. This response may sound abrupt when in print or restated by a reporter on TV. You can develop responses that show you care, but still relay you are not able to comment at this time. For example: “We take seriously the allegations of misconduct, and we are cooperating with investigators. Because this is an ongoing investigation, we cannot comment at this time.” Another example: “The safety of our students and faculty is a priority. Our prayers are with the injured students and their friends and families. We are working with the authorities in their investigation and are not able to comment further at this time.”  Your spokesperson may also direct reporters to contact the appropriate authorities investigating the incident.

Avoid holding a news conference: For most situations your PR firm may recommend that the college avoid holding a news conference. You should rely instead on your designated spokesperson to continually deliver your prepared statement to news media who request it. In certain circumstances you may be asked to participate in a joint news conference with law enforcement. An active shooter on campus that injures or kills someone is one example of when this may happen. Law enforcement and public officials usually will take the lead and should work with you on what information you may release regarding the event. They may decide to hold the news conference off campus, in a neutral location.

Designate a spot for media: Work now with your campus security team, law enforcement, and your local media to identify areas on or near campus where local and national media could set up their remote reporting. They’ll need room to park their satellite trucks and set up cameras. You’ll want to designate a location that satisfies their need to see your college in the background, but also keeps them from disrupting your day-to-day operations.   

How We Can Help

In the aftermath of certain crises and traumatic incidents, Brotherhood Mutual’s MinistryFirst® policy provides funds to engage professionals to manage responding to the media, to victims and their families, or to law enforcement. 

Posted June 2019
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Coverage descriptions are intended to help college leaders better understand Brotherhood Mutual’s insurance programs. They do not provide insurance coverage of any kind, nor do they modify the terms of any Brotherhood Mutual policy. For complete insurance coverage details, please refer to actual policy documents. Coverage for actual claims will be based on applicable policy documents applied to the individual facts of an actual claim event. Some coverage may be provided on optional endorsements and may not be available in all states.