Crisis Comms for Higher Ed: Everything you Need to Know

April 4, 2019 Sarah Parker

Crisis Comms for Higher Ed: Everything you Need to Know

No brand wants to deal with a crisis comms situation, and the stakes can feel even higher for those in higher education, where comms professionals are often the guardian of a brand representing age-old traditions of prestige and learning. 

While every brand has their own unique concerns when it comes to crisis comms planning- and higher ed is obviously no exception- there are some tenets and best practices to build on before tailoring your strategy. 

With that in mind, we'll share our best resources for every kind of crisis comms planning before tackling the specifics the higher ed community should keep in mind. 

First: Decide where your team stands 

If you're part of a team in charge of crisis comms for your brand, you may or may not have inherited a crisis comms plan when you stepped into your role. It could be airtight, or it could be outdated. Your first step is making an assessment of where that plan stands. 

Ask these three questions to start:

  1. How old is this plan? Does it need to be updated and tweaked, or scrapped and rebuilt from scratch? If it's from the pre-social media era, for example, you almost definitely need to build out a new plan. 
  2. Who is in charge of implementing this plan? Who decides when and if you're going to respond to a crisis, or even if a situation qualifies as a crisis? Who is in the chain-of-command for drafting and sending out responses? Who approves official communications? Who does if you cannot get ahold of any of the first people? Make sure this is all mapped and revisited regularly to take into account any changes on your team. 
  3. Has your brand faced a crisis situation before? If so, what was learned from it? If it was before you joined the team, is there a write-up for future team members to learn from? If not your brand, how about a competitor or someone else in your industry you can learn from? 

These three questions should establish the current state of your crisis comms strategy. Now you know which resources you need to tap into to finish building your plan out. 

Next: Build out your crisis strategy with a solid plan 

This list of resources should help you no matter which stage of crisis comms planning you find yourself in:

We can't guarantee you'll prevent any kind of crisis from ever happening, but you and your team will feel better prepared to handle anything that comes your way. 

Finally: Get specific to higher education and your brand 

Higher ed doesn't face the same challenges as brands in many other industries do.

The general public may hold higher education brands to a higher level, as they are seen as renowned institutions of learning and "traditional" values (which obviously brings its own sets of problems, as that can mean very different things to different people). 

Higher education brands have to keep several audiences in mind when designing content, thinking of their faculty, staff, students, parents of students, alumni, prospective students and parents of prospective students. There are also prospective faculty to keep in mind, as well as any popular sports teams tied to the university as well. 

There is a need to balance legacy with planning for the future, and there often has to be a prioritizing of certain audiences over others when resources are limited. 

All of this is something a comms professional working for a higher education institution has to keep in mind when designing a crisis comms strategy. Specifically consider: 

  • Is your response strategy different depending on what the crisis is about? For example, if it involves a current student or group of students vs. if it involves influential alumni? 
  • Who else do you need to consider in your chain of command for crisis response? Does the University President need to sign off on all comms, or only the highest-level comms? What if the crisis involves them? 
  • Which influencers can you tap in a time of crisis? It can be useful to have influential students, faculty, staff, alumni and more on your side to help spread your message. 

Overall, if you do the work to match your crisis comms strategy with your other strategies, your institution should be prepared for whatever comes along to test it. 

About the Author

Sarah Parker

Sarah A. Parker is the Content Marketing Manager for Cision, planning, producing and curating content across channels. She previously managed content and social media for several different brands, in addition to working as a freelance writer. Find her on Twitter @SparkerWorks where she is happy to talk all things social media strategy, Digital PR, and mastiffs.

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