Institute for Higher Education

Crisis Communications – Best Practices for Higher Ed

7 steps to incorporate to build trust, convey information, and foster hope.

Things are different, strange and unsettling. Being in the middle of a pandemic has changed the very ground rules we live by; so much of what we were doing, we are not doing today.

During this time, both clear leadership and communication provide light to a darkened path.

Your existing students, prospective students, faculty, administrators, suppliers, partners and all of their families are looking to you for clear leadership and communication. Good communication can’t change the situation, but it can make dealing with the situation less anxiety-ridden and more hopeful for everyone you touch.  

Like most of you, I have been watching the COVID-19 communications across our industry from institutions of all shapes, sizes, and locations. I have been impressed with the rapid adjustments being made to continue the mission of learning and efforts made to communicate information as it becomes available.   

During my career I have managed crisis communications at several organizations. Through both mistakes and successes, I have learned a few things to consider during this challenging time.  

Here are 7 good steps you should consider taking as you manage communications right now:

  1. Form a Tiger Team
    • Formally pull together representatives from each of your constituencies, such as: faculty, administration, students, parents, and alumni. 
    • Have a Team Lead: they own keeping this team on track.
    • Set a meeting schedule: start out daily, move to 3 days a week, move to weekly.
  2. Pick 1 Spokesperson
    • This is more about skill then title.  Select a person who is on the Tiger Team and communicates well. They speak clearly, convey empathy, are knowledgeable but not long-winded, they calmly and quickly communicate what is needed.
    • In certain instances, different people will need to speak on a topic they are an expert on; that is fine. But the spokesperson should speak first, set the context, introduce the speaker, then take back the mic and summarize key points. 
  3. Build an Online Resource Center
    • Create one place to go; address all constituency information in this one place.
    • Leverage this one place in all your communications.
    • Close down wayward social profiles that post non-relevant content.
  4. Communicate Externally
    • Set a schedule. This gets people in a rhythm and they know when to tune in. For example, you may post on social channels at 5 pm each day – call it SchoolNews@5.
    • Yes, communicate on that schedule even if nothing has changed. Tell them nothing has changed on your end, but you want to hear if anything has changed on their end (more on that in a bit). Point them to the resource center.
    • Use all your channels right now – point them all to one resource center where you manage your message. 
  5. Communicate Internally
    • Everyone inside your organization is just as important as externally.  The better informed they are, the better ambassadors they will be. Remember they are also going through all the same anxieties and having the same questions in their households as well.
    • Much of the same information is valuable to them; point them to the same resources.
    • I also recommend a series of internal all-hands calls.  This provides them a place to meet as a team and gives them a safe place to ask questions.  
  6. Solicit Questions
    • In all your outreach, both internally and externally – solicit questions.
    • Specifically, provide an easy mechanism and instructions on how to submit a question:
      • Go to the resource center and submit?
      • Call a number, we will answer?
    • There is much you don’t know, aren’t aware of and won’t think of.  The best way to address the needs of your constituents is to ask them over and over again.
  7. Answer their Questions
    • Reply quickly: establish a response timeframe. For example, 24-hour response time.
    • Tell them when they can expect a response: we will get back to you within 24 hours.
    • Make sure someone is designated to pull together the questions, get the answers, and disseminate the answers.
    • Some tips:        
      • Post an FAQ on the Resource Center, keep this updated
      • Twitter & Facebook – promote FAQ on the Resource Center
      • Live QA – Facebook Live is a great tool for this, post the recording on the resource page afterwards

Finally, Remember Your Heart

Be natural and convey a sense that this is a confusing time, all questions are good ones, acknowledge you don’t have all the answers, but we will get through this.  You represent hope along with the facts.

Jim Rogers is the CEO of 3 Enrollment Marketing.