Academic journal article Planning for Higher Education

Planning for University Crisis Management: The Seven-Step Approach

Academic journal article Planning for Higher Education

Planning for University Crisis Management: The Seven-Step Approach

Article excerpt


SOONER OR LATER, a public relations (PR) crisis will hit your university. A reputation for integrity scholarship, and civic-mindedness nurtured over decades can be sundered overnight. Almost always, a crisis will be accompanied by legal risks, sometimes involving large potential liabilities in today's litigious society. To best weather the storm, legal guidance and PR advice--which may be at cross-purposes--will have to be harmonized.

Most often, the nature of the crisis will be unpredictable. It could arise from sexual assaults, shootings or other crimes, controversial speech, misbehaving athletes, academic fraud, medical practices at a university hospital, financial difficulties, or any of the numerous other facets of today's universities, many of which are effectively small cities.

A recent survey of businesses showed that many feel unprepared to manage various types of crises and recognize that they have gaps in their crisis communications and decision-making capabilities (Deloitte 2015). The same is surely true of many universities. But while the exact nature of a crisis may not be foreseeable, preparation is still possible and necessary. Indeed, it is unforgiveable in current times not to have a crisis management plan in place. The plan should involve key campus administrators and be practical, easy to activate, and flexible. Regular training is also invaluable.

In this article, we discuss seven basic steps that should be part of most universities' crisis management plan. Of course, there is great diversity among institutions of higher education, so our suggestions may require adaptation to particular circumstances.



As a matter of routine--before any crisis strikes--a university should develop relationships with journalists (local and beyond) who cover the university and who can be expected to cover the inevitable crisis when it hits. Journalists are people, and they will be more receptive to hearing and even accepting the university's viewpoint if they have previously developed a relationship of trust, or at least professional respect, with the university's leadership.

In many cases, a university crisis will also involve local public safety officials--police, fire, ambulance, and other first responders. In the event of a crisis, those officials will have an important role in informing the public. University communications staff should get acquainted with their counterparts at public safety organizations. Even more importantly, universities should ensure that their security and facility managers have good operational relationships with their first-responder counterparts. The best time to get acquainted and learn coordination is not in the middle of a tornado. Take advantage of calm times to foster the relationships that will be essential in tougher days.


Before a crisis strikes, a university should form a crisis management team that includes the core set of campus leaders whose input will likely be needed. At larger universities, this team might include the university president, chief operations officer, general counsel, compliance director, communications officer, dean of students, campus police chief, manager responsible for rape and mental health counseling, athletic director, and risk management officer. Smaller institutions without all these managers should form a smaller team of those with equivalent functional responsibilities.

Every university should arrange in advance for external PR advisors and legal counsel to be on standby if a crisis metastasizes quickly. Such advisors can provide objective perspectives that can be crucial to overcome internal politics and career considerations that can color crisis responses; they can also provide specialized advice depending on the nature of the crisis. …

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