Crisis Communication Proactive Planning

March 25, 2020
a red light in a dark room

On March 23, 2020, we convened more than a dozen of our clients and friends in higher ed to discuss crisis communications in the wake of the novel coronavirus outbreak, which has significantly disrupted higher education in a matter of weeks. Here are some of the highlights from our discussion.

Reviewing the process

Through the StratOps process, you figure out what you need to do in order to make a strategic vision an actionable reality. That begins by posing four guiding questions:

  • What’s working well you can further optimize?
  • What is broken that can now be fixed?
  • What is confusing that needs clarification?
  • ​What is missing that needs to be added?

Even in this tumultuous time where you may find yourself building the car while you drive it, it is important to identify items that fit into one of these four buckets and take what you have learned to evolve the process for the future.

One attendee has been sending out a regular survey with similar questions for reflection, seeking constructive feedback rather than creating a funnel for complaints.

Cross-Campus Collaboration and Flexible Schedules

Crisis communications means working closely with partners across campus, ranging from facilities to dining services to public safety. The schedules for daily calls or meetings may not align with what works best for your team to take appropriate communications-related action in response to information learned in those meetings. You may need to be flexible about your own team’s scheduling to both align with the needs of a cross-campus collaborative team while also giving them time to work, rest, and attend to other life responsibilities.

Serving as a Clearinghouse

A core function of the communications office during a crisis such as this is the maintenance of an information hub, which serves as the canonical, go-to source of institutional guidance for the duration. It is important to define a single, authoritative hub of information — not just the creation of a page, but a process behind the scenes whereby communication is being managed and centralized appropriately.

RIT’s microsite of coronavirus updates and resources does a great job of organizing information effectively while also elevating key “headlines” around campus status and important touchpoints like their coronavirus call center.

Standard Operating Procedures

A key part of any institutional crisis communications plan should be a Communications Tools Standard Operating Procedures Document, to help guide which channels should be used under each circumstance. This ensures that your college or university is prepared to share information with the campus community in a consistent, organized, and timely manner. 

Some relevant considerations to document include:

  • Who reviews content? Who approves it? Who is involved and who isn’t?
  • Where is specific content to be published?
  • Are all relevant parties trained on and granted access to designated tools?
  • Is there redundancy built into the system?
  • Has an overview of expectations and protocol been communicated to outlying communications professionals across the institution?
  • ​Is there a line of communication established for others across the organization to share information or ask questions?

Social Media Monitoring

Whether it is identifying unexpressed concerns among the campus community or ensuring there is no misinformation gaining traction among your audiences, social media oversight and monitoring plays a critical role in your crisis communications plan. Some considerations include:

  • Active listening across all main channels
  • Using Slack to coordinate across all social media managers at the institution, guided and led by someone in the central communications office, to share authoritative information and provide guidance on publishing and sharing of COVID19 related information
  • Sentiment analysis can provide important insights into how people are talking about the topic. In a pinch, publishing screenshots in a shared doc can give people beyond the immediate social media managers insight into the mood and climate out in the community — that information can be summarized to share with people outside of the communications team (e.g. executive leadership, public safety)
  • ​Sharing responsibility across multiple social media managers can help lessen the stress and share the load — there may be an opportunity to conscript social media managers from non-central units, if the workload warrants it

New Ways to Marshal Marketing Creativity

Most marketing teams typically spend the academic year designing and producing reams of posters, invitations, flyers, brochures, and other print products for internal clients. A crisis such as this presents other opportunities for creative ingenuity. At Hood College in Frederick, Maryland, where only essential employees were allowed to work last week, they developed and printed up clean/not clean door hangers to aid facilities staff in knowing where there were offices that needed to be cleaned and those they didn’t have to enter.. 

Commencement

Different colleges and universities have handled upcoming spring commencements in a range of ways, from postponement to cancelation to introducing virtual ceremonies. Some key considerations include:

  • Ensuring the campus community that decisions are not being made in a vacuum — that people outside of leadership are being consulted and have an opportunity to provide input
  • One institution set up a task force of people from across campus to meet weekly and talk through where the college stands on the fate of Commencement. 
  • For executive, part-time, or low-residency programs, there may be less of an emotional investment in the Commencement ceremony. But for full-time students and particularly residential undergraduates, the emotional heft of any decision around Commencement cannot be overlooked. Through that lens, it can really become a conversation about how best to celebrate seniors in this uniquely challenging time. (If this conversation is primarily happening within your student affairs office, find a way to add the communications and marketing voice to the mix.) This could mean breaking commencement into smaller groups that can more easily celebrate virtually, offering unique (and affordable) things like custom Zoom backgrounds. (While mailing every senior a commencement-in-a-box kit sounds like a great idea, it can quickly become a logistical and financial burden.)
  • A virtual event now doesn’t necessarily need to replace an in-person event in the future
  • There are vendors that can provide virtual reality-type experiences or other types of online events, but many of them are slammed at the moment. And of course, cost is a factor.
  • ​Commencement is often the last touch and bridge to strong alumni/donor relations. Don’t forget about this critical impact on future giving when planning alternative arrangements.

Staff Mental Health

Everyone is negotiating an unprecedented balance of work, family, personal stress, and public health protocol. Even just taking a few minutes each day to ask people how they are doing can be tremendously helpful.

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