How to Improve Crisis Management in Universities

Lawrence H. Lokman
Lawrence H. Lokman

Universities are crisis magnets. When you put large numbers of teenage men and women together for the first time away from home, throw in a Division I sports program, billion dollar donor campaigns, public funding and a major medical center, you have a crisis lurking at every corner.

You would think campus leaders would be adept at handling crises, but dealing with a crisis is far different than normal campus decision making. The experiences of Penn State and Rutgers show how cultures with lax oversight, athletic-department hubris and the failures of effective university leadership can sink well-cultivated reputations for learning and integrity.

So, how can effective crisis communication be implemented in university environments?

> Understand the culture

Academic leaders are highly intelligent, trained to debate and often overconfident in their ability to manage unfamiliar situations. This means PR folks must be well prepared to debate their recommendations with strong reasoning and evidence to back up their points.

Universities are also famously insular. Academic administrators rise in committee-based decision cultures that require extensive deliberation and consensus building outside public purview. You have to prepare the environment to work differently during crisis.

> Establish conditions for success

To be successful, PR professionals must help campus leaders in three areas:

1. Understand the anatomy of crisis

It is important to cultivate an understanding of the reputational, regulatory, legal and civil liability consequences of mismanaged crises. Without this, insular leaders can’t predict the consequences of their actions. But, you can get them to understand the need to work in lock step with communications.

2. Accept the need for top-level engagement and speedy decision making

Without a forceful presence at the top, units circle the wagons, water down communications and drag out responses to media, public and regulatory information requests. While working at UCLA, the director of the university’s Willed Bodies Program was discovered illegally selling donated body parts to other research institutions for personal gain. The leaked story during an investigation dominated national news, enraged families and prompted civil litigation and legislative scrutiny. The chancellor and head of health systems involved themselves personally in every aspect of the emerging crisis and led reform efforts. 

3. Staff crisis management teams with the right people, and define their roles

While it may seem obvious to a communications pro, legal and communications counsel must have an equal role and presence, alongside unit heads, reporting in to a president or provost. Putting the lawyers in total charge is a mistake made in lots of big organizations. Campus leaders have to balance legal advice with the institution’s reputational priorities.

> Create ongoing support processes

Accomplishing these objectives is no easy task. It requires an active education and support process that acculturates the institution. Here are some suggested steps:

  • Orchestrate an annual discussion at the president’s executive committee and trustee meeting on crisis management and campus protocols. Enlist a national expert to participate. Often, outside experts can educate leadership and say things in a way that will be both heard and accepted.
  • Establish formal and informal internal crisis communications protocols. These expectations need to be articulated by the president or chancellor to his senior management team and all unit heads.

> Create an “early warning” system

It is important the campus communications chief maintain standing meetings with legal counsel, unit heads and the campus president to review and discuss sensitive issues. The communications chief should lead an issues management discussion on the agenda of executive committee meetings.

The bottom line is that crises are inevitable, but outcomes can be changed through planning, preparation and sound crisis communications practices.

Lawrence H. Lokman is founder and managing director of Window In CommunicationsHe was formerly head of communications for UCLA.  

Follow Lawrence on Twitter at @llokman.