When the University of Missouri president, Tim Wolfe, resigned last Monday, the former Board of Curators chairman told The New York Times that the school did not do the “three things in crisis management that you have to do: be abundantly honest, you have to work quickly and you have to control the message.”
That’s true, but there are several other areas where leadership on campuses across the country also need to excel, so that they are continually operating in a proactive—as opposed to reactive—mode.
1. Strike the right tone.
When managing hot-button issues such as race or sexual assault on campus, administrators must not only be abundantly honest, they must be empathetic and consistent in their message, all the while being protective of the school’s reputation. While you do have to work quickly when a crisis strikes, anticipating issues and being proactive in addressing them will allow you to avoid most unpleasant surprises.
2. Define your brain trust.
I can’t tell you who was advising President Wolfe, but it’s obvious he didn’t surround himself with the proper lieutenants. If he did, he wouldn’t have remained silent after the shooting of Mike Brown in nearby Ferguson and his announcement of a “diversity and inclusion” strategy last spring wouldn’t have been viewed as reactive. A higher ed crisis team should include the president, the appropriate deans, diversity leaders, general counsel as well as representation from the offices of Communications and Student Life. It’s critical that external legal and PR counsel be present to bring a more objective perspective to the table.
3. Develop a narrative.
Don’t allow someone to wrestle away a narrative you should be controlling–and don’t let your key audiences read about your accomplishments from someone else first. Keep the student body, parents, faculty, donors and others updated as to (a) What you have done around a particular issue (b) What you are going to do (c) Report milestones and, finally, (d) hold yourself accountable.
4. Utilize communications channels.
Being proactive means using every channel at your disposal to communicate your message. That means letters to the campus community, having an accessible website portal as a resource and record about what you’ve done, are doing, and are going to do to enact positive change. Use social media to start important conversations, promote awareness campaigns and post video-taped messages. And don’t forget to engage key student journalists in an effort to foster an open and honest dialogue around traditionally tough subjects.
5. Remain flexible.
Always be anticipating how a particular audience will respond to particular developments. For instance, how will the media likely cover a story on Day 1, Day 2, etc.? This will allow you to continually asses and reassess the risks and potential pitfalls. Also, be prepared for different sets of messages for different audiences such as students and donors. When it comes to communicating effectively, one size rarely fits all.