Six tips for developing a higher education crisis communication plan 

Creating a communications crisis plan is like writing your will. You know you should, but the thought of willingly putting yourself in a nightmarish situation that hasn’t even happened yet isn’t exactly the best motivator. And as much as I hate to break it to you, that’s the exact reason why you need to have a plan in place, because when that crisis strikes – and it is a when not an if – you aren’t going to have the time to strategize and think because you need to act fast and smart. 

In the world of higher education, there are a dozen different crises that could upend your operations, affect your bottom line and impact your credibility. From protests to faculty concerns, acts of violence to cybersecurity attacks, the list goes on and on. 

If your institution is relying on its contingency operation plans for all things crisis, but you don’t have a defined crisis communications plan in place, this post is for you. Here are six tips for writing a crisis communications plan for your college or university. 

Put a plan in place 

Tip number one is to get something down on paper as soon as you can. While operational contingency plans are great, if they don’t have a specific communications plan or if it’s not versioned for common higher education crisis scenarios, you’re missing critical components. Work with a group of peers who may be relevant to a crisis situation (e.g. admissions, information technology, student support services) and have multiple stakeholders at the table when you’re crafting your response plans. 

Assign roles and responsibilities 

When a crisis strikes, you shouldn’t be figuring out how to delegate because time is of the essence. As you’re planning, make decisions on specific individuals who will handle specific tasks for each given crisis scenario. That way, if you – the primary leader of orchestrating the crisis response – are tied up with media or administration, the crisis team can have marching orders to keep things contained. Make sure every individual who is part of the plan is aware of the plan, has access to the plan and has the right tools to execute all of their responsibilities. A crisis is also not a great time to ask for passwords and keys.

Practice and revisit 

Once a plan is in place and people assigned to it, practice, practice, practice. Your working group should be practicing the scenarios and tactical responses semi-annually or quarterly to ensure everyone knows what to do – and to, inevitably, replace folks that may have left or changed roles. 

Don’t forget about your internal audiences 

When you’re so focused on perception and communicating with media and the public at large, it can be easy to forget about one of your most important audiences – your people. Make sure that you have covered off on communicating with your internal audiences before they hear about things on social media or on television. When they’re in the know, they can help serve as fact-checkers and amplifiers of the messages you need to disseminate. 

Learn from the mistakes of others

For as long as higher education institutions have been around, there has always been – and there always will be – crises to plan for. If your college or university has managed to get along without any major crises, that’s great! But learn from your peer institutions to see how they handled crises. If you see a school in the news for a crisis, take note and follow along. You may hear or see something that could be useful for your plan. 

Debrief and revise

Finally, for when that crisis does come along, do a postmortem and debrief with your stakeholder team – and leadership if they’re not part of the working group. What worked, what didn’t? Where could you move more resources to, what could you take resources away from? Did you miss any audiences? Were there tactics you weren’t prepared for? What were the wins you can celebrate as a team?  

If you’re feeling stuck writing your crisis plan, or if you’re too close to be objective, our team can help you work through some of the tough questions and can help you take all the thoughts and ideas that are swirling around and put them in an organized plan that sets you up for success.  

Casey Prentice

A self-proclaimed organizational junkie and data geek who confesses to a secret desire to be a professional organizer, Casey enjoys account management, writing, editing and digital content strategy. Her agency work has helped clients like Virginia’s Community Colleges, VCUarts and Swedish Match.

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