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20-point crisis communications checklist for universities

August 4, 2015

We wish that your university is always fruitful with high student achievement and without any incidents that could draw negative press. But the reality these days is that it’s almost inevitable and that at any moment’s notice a crisis can hit your campus. Whether it’s hazing, on-campus shooting, a financial crisis, or any other negative news, it’s important that your communications team is ready to address it head on with a proactive  strategy that will preserve the integrity of university, morale, and public perception.

In the event that your campus is faced with a crisis, here’s a 20 Point Crisis Communications Checklist that will help you proactively address the situation.

  1. Monitor media and what’s being said. The university’s brand is everything and can be shredded into pieces in seconds thanks to social media. Proactively monitor the conversation about your university.
  2. Always be ready. You can never predict when a crisis will hit, and there should be an internal and external communications strategy and a chain of command already established pre-crisis. A crisis communications plan should never stand alone and should be a part of the overall PR strategy.
  3. Tell your story. In the midst of mitigating the crisis, also be sure to tell your organization’s story, but err on the side of appearing defensive or out of touch.
  4. Seek outside counsel. Although most organizations have an internal communications team, you should not rely on staff managing all of the communications efforts during a time of crisis. Before a crisis even arises, establish an ‘as needed’ agreement with a crisis communications firm.
  5. Mobilize spokespersons…immediately. A good crisis plan always has spokespersons identified well before the crisis hits. Spokespersons should represent the university well and be adequately trained to appropriately address the media and the public under the counsel of an attorney.
  6. Identify key messages…but avoid self serving messages. A mistake that university administrators make is to deflect the focus away from the situation.
  7. Take accountability. Provide an immediate apology, and never shift the blame. Sounds simple but it never fails that administrators think they’re helping by minimizing the situation.
  8. Don’t hide…transparency is monumental. Now is not the time to avoid the public. The crisis is usually the result of an error in judgement. So it goes without saying that transparency is key.
  9. Don’t avoid the media…they will find you one way or another. Manage the media and not the other way around.
  10. “No comment” is the worst response. Nothing pisses the media off more than these two simple words. You always have a comment and if you decide not to share your comment, the media will make assumptions on your behalf.
  11. Anticipate tough questions. Avoid uncomfortable situations by anticipating tough questions. Before an interview, always request the interviewer’s questions or topics to be discussed so that spokespersons are adequately prepared.
  12. Connect with the audience. Prepared statements are ok to use, but avoid coming across as too scripted and not genuine enough. The personal touch is important.
  13. Relate. Show genuine empathy, concern, and compassion for victims, injured parties, damages, and any inconveniences.
  14. Attorneys are important, but they know nothing about communications. Know that everything said can be held against you in a court of law. So work under the counsel of an attorney, but also know that their job is to defend you, not represent you in the media. While they know how to keep further damage from being done, attorneys are not trained in communications and should work cooperatively with the internal communications team and crisis communications firm.
  15. Always tell the truth. Whatever you do, never ever ever lie or conceal the truth. The truth always comes out. Publicly take accountability. Stakeholders will respect you for it.
  16. Avoid defensive and argumentative language. Pretty straightforward here.
  17. Fix the problem. It’s easy to be blinded by the crisis and not use it as an opportunity to actually fix the problem that led to the crisis. Take this as an opportunity to improve internal processes and systems.
  18. It’s business as usual. Never abandon the reason why the organization exists. Regardless of how bad the crisis may be, over serve your campus community and stakeholders during this time. Use the crisis as an opportunity to redefine and recommit to the school’s mission and create more value for your public.
  19. Ride out the storm. Sometimes you can do more harm than good by being too on edge. This is usually the result of an absent crisis communications plan. Preparation is key and it shows in your handling of the crisis.
  20. Remain ethical. In the end, the public will respect the organization for remaining ethical during the crisis.

How quickly you bounce back after a crisis is determined by the strength of your crisis communications plan.

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