A college or a university’s crisis communication plan is unique. It must outline protocols and responsibilities that reach across the entire campus during an emergency. The audience is diverse, from trustees to undergraduates to state agencies, and the message needs to disseminate as quickly as possible. There are legal concerns, privacy concerns, and a degree of public scrutiny to consider.
With so many people concentrated on campus, the first hours and days of an emergency are crucial. Here is what you need to include in your campus-specific crisis communication plan.
When to Put the Plan Into Action
To put your plan into play, you must officially declare an emergency. Define in detail what constitutes an emergency for your campus. As part of the Clery Act, you’re required to make “timely notifications” about emergencies to the campus community. So consider what officially declaring an emergency looks like, including:
- Who decides what is and is not an emergency?
- Is there an emergency leadership team?
- When will the emergency leadership team convene?
- What is the timely notification goal in terms of minutes - within 30 minutes of an emergency declaration? 60? 90?
One example of the process might look something like this: the campus crisis communication team convenes once the designated emergency director declares an emergency. The team’s goal is to disseminate a timely notification of the emergency within 30 minutes. The president of public affairs, part of the emergency leadership team, will immediately take action after consulting with the team. The rest of the crisis communication team will proceed with the plan, revising as needed to tailor to the specific crisis in consideration.
Who is on the Emergency Leadership Panel
Your crisis communication panel should be made up of individuals that have a vested interest in campus safety and communications. These designees can communicate to their team as needed. The panel should include appointees responsible for:
- Public affairs and/or government relations
- State and local agency communications
- Media relations
- Office of information technology
- Medical services
- Counseling services
- Alumni communications
- The provost’s office
- The president’s office
- Undergraduate communications
- Graduate and continuing education communications
- Facilities staff communications
- Student affairs
- Campus services
Actions the Team Will Take
The team should implement some or all steps of the plan according to the nature of the crisis. These decisions can be made by the emergency leadership panel on a case-by-case basis. Consider that during the crisis, the emergency leadership panel should be in frequent communication to assess changing circumstances and assess response efforts. Tasks may include, but not be limited to, the following:
- Designate an emergency communications secretary - to assist with note-taking, information gathering, and updating the rest of the team
- Review known information - in order to speak accurately about the situation and avoid speculation
- Develop key messaging points and spokespeople - senior leaders may face the public and field questions from the media, and key messaging points are necessary to avoid confusion or misstatements
- Reach out to all stakeholders via their preferred communication channels - this may include staff, students, deans, parents, alumni, local agencies, first responders, state and local media, federal contacts, visitors, and other senior leaders
- Build out an online response - for those who are looking for updates online, carry out an on-message response on your website and via social media channels
- Assign tasks to emergency leadership panel - according to their specializations and areas of responsibility
- Author communications from the president - as the main spokesperson for the college or university, it is important to communicate from the president to the community at large
- Open communication with the media - via either a press conference, interviews, and/or ongoing updates and Q&As
Approvals in the Crisis Communication Plan
For university and college campuses, approvals will be a key part of your crisis communications. Typically, there are multiple stages of approval required before sending out a campus email or press release. In a crisis, when time is limited, this approval chain won’t be efficient enough. Develop templates in advance, through a mass notification system, so that they’re ready to go at a moment’s notice. Also, leave the approvals up to one key designee, such as the Vice President of Public Affairs or media relations.
Ending the Emergency
Just as there was an official declaration of emergency, there should be protocols in place to officially end the emergency. The emergency leadership panel should determine when normal communications and operations can resume again on campus. This decision may reside with the entire team, or with one sole appointee. The end of the emergency should also trigger a review recap on what worked and what should be improved.
The emergency leadership panel should educate the community about how and when to respond in a crisis. These communications usually come in the form of emails, or wherever campus gets routine updates. In addition, the college or university should conduct periodic drills involving the emergency leadership panel. Some portions of campus may also need to be included in these drills. You should also hold media training and emergency operations education sessions as needed. Build in annual or bi-annual reviews to update this plan.
The goal for your emergency communications is to communicate as quickly as possible, while leaving out speculation or misinformation. On campus, news travels fast, and there are many different groups together in one place. As such, it’s difficult to walk back statements once they’re made, or second-guess your decisions. Effectively communicating in an emergency will affect how the public perceives your campus, so focus on speed and accuracy.