Safety & Security (Prepare and Be Aware)

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Plan A

crisis communications plan

PHOTO © WELLPHOTO

When the rain started in southern Louisiana on Thursday evening, August 11, no one was paying much attention. Why would they?

The radar looked clear; no hurricanes in sight, no tropical storms churning. It was just a little rain, so Kristin Sanders, assistant vice president for communication at Louisiana State University (LSU) in Baton Rouge, went to bed as usual.

By morning the situation changed. Heavy rain spurred flash flooding… and it got worse from there. Over the next few days seven trillion gallons of water fell. When the storm-with-no-name was over, 30,000 people were evacuated and 13 lives were lost. What started as “a little rain” ended up being the nation’s worst natural disaster since 2012’s superstorm, Hurricane Sandy.

Even though the August event was unexpected, Sanders and the rest of LSU’s crisis communication team knew what to do. The plan was activated remotely, allowing team members to work from home. Events were cancelled and messages were crafted, approved and sent out. When Sunday brought massive power outages, everyone assembled in the school’s Emergency Operations Center — a room in the public safety building — and worked for the next nine days. Through it all, they relied on their tried-and-true crisis communication plan. Because of it Sanders knew what to do, what to bring and even where to sit.

Unfortunately, she’s had a lot of practice. “We’ve had more than our fair share of opportunities to execute this plan,” recalls Sanders.

She’s not kidding.

Hurricanes and tropical storms may be the norm in Louisiana, but weather isn’t the only reason a school might activate the plan. LSU initiated it one month earlier when violence and unrest gripped the surrounding city. While the conflict never spilled over into the campus the plan was there, just in case. As a result, operations ran smoothly and accurate information was disseminated.

And that’s the beauty of a crisis communication plan. It defines roles, identifies stakeholders and sets guidelines. Emergencies take many forms, but a solid, well-rehearsed plan adapts to the situation. Would your school be just as prepared?

What is a Crisis?

There are many reasons a school would reference their crisis communication plans. Some are obvious and immediate: think natural disaster, active shooter or building collapse. Others are a bit more nuanced, such as sexual assault incidents or a disgruntled staff member who might talk to the press.

Others are, in the words of Charles Dolan, senior vice president, kglobal, “longsimmering.” He offers some hair-raising examples: a board that fired and then rehired a president after staff and student uproar, a nondenominational school that took heat after removing a Christian cross from the campus or the now-retracted 2014 Rolling Stone article about a gang rape at the University of Virginia.

Clearly the stakes for each situation are different, yet a comprehensive crisis plan offers guidance for all. “You could activate just part of your plan,” explains Sanders. “Or refer to it for ideas.”

What’s the Plan… and Where Is It?

“A detailed crisis communications plan will help you evaluate the scope and level of a crisis while establishing a uniform communications system, procedures and protocols,” writes Susan Shelby, president and CEO, Rhino PR. Having this in place allows a school to provide, “precise, consistent information” to the appropriate stakeholders. “You don’t want to be just figuring these things out on the fly during an event,” she says.

That information and those stakeholders will change depending on the situation. And while you can’t plan for everything, the document should be flexible enough to cover a variety of situations. It should also grow and change over time. “When we first drew up our plan in 1997 it was a couple of pages long,” remembers Sanders. “Now it’s a gigantic binder with many different scenarios.”

While Shelby does not recommend putting the actual plan in a binder, “It should be in the cloud, accessible to everyone. A binder will just end up on a shelf collecting dust,” Sanders disagrees. “I have three of them,” she says. “One at the office, one at home and one in my car. You have to be prepared if the power goes out.”

I’ll Do the Talking

A good plan identifies every player and his or her responsibilities as the crisis unfolds. It should name one spokesperson, “usually the university president,” according to Sanders, who will speak and answer questions at press conferences. The team, however, will be more expansive depending on the situation. Members can include campus police, the dean of students, head of facilities, a purchasing specialist to secure supplies and someone from IT to tackle computer issues, among others.

Disseminating the messages after a press conference is key, as people have questions. Is the school open or closed? Where do I go? If the school is closed what happens to my event or test? “Students and faculty want to know how an incident will affect them,” explains Sanders.

severe weather on campus

PHOTO COURTESY OF JOSEPH KRANAK

ARE WE READY FOR THIS? Not every emergency situation on campus will fit the definition of a “crisis,” but even incidents of severe weather — such as a hurricane, blizzard or flood — should remind administrators that when anything occurs that disrupts normal day-to-day operations, the primary criteria for successful communication is preparedness. A trained communications team should prepare notification to the campus community and broadcast it to the campus as well as to stakeholders in the surrounding community, which can include first responders, medical facilities, delivery services and utility companies. As much as possible, all non-essential personnel should be cleared from campus; those individuals without alternative plans may be required to report to a predetermined location. Campus facilities should be prepared and available for students and staff who may be stranded until the event resolves.

Different channels should be used to disseminate that information. An emergency text system is not enough. “Not everyone signs up for it,” she explains. She uses a broadcast email system that can’t be unsubscribed from, along with posting information on a website and social media. A big-enough event might warrant its own micro-site.

A crisis that involves your school’s reputation should be handled differently. Dolan suggests placing two people on social media duty, monitoring feeds constantly for inaccurate information and addressing it when it appears — and it will — with approved messages. “This way you are defining the situation as opposed to someone who wants a juicy story,” he explains. He also suggests daily reviews of what’s been said or done and how to adjust your message.

No Comment?

Your institution’s spokesperson will spend a lot of time with the media during a crisis. Because of this Shelby recommends the individual go through some professional training, often given by a former investigative reporter. Here your representative will learn how to calmly answer questions, convey the correct amount of information and not get emotional or off track. Training sessions will be videotaped.

Despite the best preparation, a spokesperson can’t know the answer to every question. “That’s okay,” according to Shelby. “What’s not okay is guessing. If you don’t know something, it’s acceptable to offer to find out the answer and get back to the reporter before deadline.”

What if something is too controversial to discuss? Is it ever okay to say “no comment?” “No,” Shelby insists. “Explain as much as you can. ‘No comment’ sounds as though you’re hiding something.”

Grace Under Pressure

Plans need to be reviewed and practiced once or twice a year. “Communication changes so fast that there might be a new social media outlet that you haven’t addressed before,” says Dolan.

Sanders, at LSU, agrees. “We have 5,000 employees and 34,000 students. Emergency personnel change. It might feel redundant to someone like me who’s been at the school for 20 years but it will always be new to someone.”

And don’t use size to justify avoiding the issue. Incidents happen everywhere. “Even small schools need a plan,” insists Shelby. Both she and Dolan suggest building a relationship with a public relations firm that can either assess a current protocol or step in mid-crisis if needed.

This article originally appeared in the October 2016 issue of College Planning & Management.

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