The Role of Crisis Communications on Campus

July-August 2020
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Before Easter, most college campuses in the United States were thrown into a tailspin of changes caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Communicators at colleges and universities — as well as students, parents, faculty, alumni and vendors — have seen how campus leaders communicate during the COVID-19 crisis. How well these leaders communicate throughout the crisis can positively or negatively impact their institutions’ reputations.

When coronavirus lockdowns began across the country, campus leaders started communicating weekly and daily via email, social media, Zoom and other channels. They shared reports on the spread of COVID-19 and communicated how campus communities could protect themselves from the virus. 

Classes, services and meetings moved online. On-campus staffs were limited to essential workers, while those deemed nonessential began teleworking. Remote resources, telephonic counseling and pass/fail grading options became available. In-person commencement ceremonies were replaced by virtual ceremonies.

Preparing for a new normal

Now, several months into the pandemic, leaders have likely learned some lessons to aid them in preparing for a new normal and the fall semester. They should look to their experienced PR professionals to help them assess their crisis communication. 

According to the conclusions of a 2017 research study I conducted, which focused on crisis communications from college and university leaders, communications professionals should lead the crisis communication process and counsel campus leaders to use strategies that prevent or minimize damage to the reputations of their schools.

The crises I examined were those which threaten the safety of stakeholders. Based on my research findings, I developed “Crisis Communication Recommendations for Campus Safety,” the guidelines of which apply to the COVID-19 crisis.

Communicating early and often

My findings stress the importance of pre-crisis strategic management which includes developing plans for the kinds of crises most likely to occur on university campuses. These plans should include crisis simulations and drafted messages, such as emergency handbooks, that will help prepare campus communities for the possibility of a crisis.

As my research has found, it’s important to communicate a crisis response as soon as possible. A campus community should hear the news from the school’s leaders or communications staff before they see it on TV or social media.

And while prompt crisis responses are crucial, they cannot be made in haste, either. As always, facts should be checked for accuracy before communicating any messages. And if a mistake is made, it should be quickly corrected.

As a crisis evolves, communicators should frequently update spokespeople and stakeholders, using multiple communications channels. College students view social media as a more timely news source than traditional media outlets.

When choosing spokespeople, it’s best to find individuals others view as trustworthy and credible. The information they share must also be reliable, of course. For example, an audience will likely view information about how to protect itself during a health crisis as more credible when it comes from a campus health professional, versus from a campus administrator.

Emphasizing public safety

During the coronavirus pandemic, or any other crisis that threatens the safety of people, communications should emphasize that public safety is the priority. Moving college classes online and establishing campus-wide teleworking capabilities demonstrates this strategy.

When appropriate, communications should also inform crisis victims and potential victims that counseling services are available, and how those services can be accessed. Messages to victims and potential victims should educate them on how to protect themselves and convey that the organization is concerned about their welfare. College students, particularly those living away from home, might feel a need to be cared for during a campus crisis. 

During and after crises, it matters what, when and how campus leaders communicate. If stakeholders perceive that campus leaders are communicating improperly, their judgments might adversely affect the reputations of those institutions. Conversely, when interested parties approve of how campus leaders communicate during a crisis, their assessments can help minimize damage to the reputations of those schools.

photo credit: jannis tobias werner

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