Crisis Communications: Control the Message

July 2014 | 0 Comments  Average 0 out of 5

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During the defining moments of a communications crisis, educational institutions should identify and answer the most important question, such as “Are we safe?” or “Is school open?” said Rhonda Barnat, managing director of the Abernathy MacGregor Group, a public relations (PR) company in New York.

“When there is silence, rumors and speculation start to fill the void."

—Karmina Zafiro, Fineman PR 

“If we answer that question, it will help us get out of the need for constant updates, allow a small, empowered group to manage the crisis, demonstrate we are thinking of those affected first, and allow everything else to get back to normal as quickly as possible,” she said. “We strive to avoid fueling a fire by providing constant and ever-increasing updates to audiences that are not central to the issue. Speaking directly to those most affected works best.”

Barnat, other PR experts, and UE members also recommend that educational institutions:

Practice. “Whenever there is a crisis on campus, whether it’s a reputational crisis or the result of campus violence, the college needs to work with its emergency response team,” said Elizabeth Carmichael, director of compliance and risk management at Five Colleges Inc. in Amherst, Mass. “Everybody in the emergency response team will know what his or her responsibilities are and will work to ensure the response is both unified and appropriate.”

It’s essential to include your communications response team in your emergency response drills. “Don’t wait until you have a crisis and the press is standing at your door,” she said. If you are caught unprepared, call for help from a company that routinely handles crisis management communications.

Select a spokesperson. The working crisis team typically determines on a case-by-case basis who should speak to the press. “The involvement of senior leadership is always a delicate question,” Barnat said. “If a senior leader—such as the president of a university—gets involved, that makes it a top priority. If the president doesn’t get involved, and there has been something as serious as a student death, it can seem that the leadership is disengaged. We work with campuses to determine very quickly how and when senior leaders should be involved. We often recommend that the president get involved with the victims—not necessarily with the press.”

Make a statement. If your institution is still gathering information, provide a holding statement, rather than remaining silent, said Karmina Zafiro, senior director of social media and analytics at Fineman PR in San Francisco. “Silence is deafening, especially in social media. When there is silence, rumors and speculation start to fill the void.” It is better to say you are gathering information that you will provide later than not saying anything at all.

Correct any errors. To prevent unnecessary speculation, correct misinformation and try to quash any rumors by posting frequently asked questions on your website, and don’t respond to criticism. “We counsel our clients to take the high road,” Zafiro said. “We don’t encourage them to get into flame wars.”

Get bad news over with. “If there’s bad news to be had, we always say it’s very, very important to get all out at once,” Fineman said. “Don’t let it dribble out over the course of days or weeks. Then you’re continually under fire. Get it all out at once so you can deal with it at that time.”

Monitor social media. The tenets of crisis communication hold true for social media, Zafiro said. “It just takes place at a faster speed. Your messages should be consistent across the board, although social media may require a more casual tone.”
For example, if someone poses a question on social media, institutions should provide a simple answer and direct the individual to the website for additional details. “You don’t have to respond to every single tweet, but you should be aware that conversations are taking place on social media,” she said.

Demonstrate concern. During a crisis, your top message should always be public concern, said Michael Fineman, president of Fineman PR. “Communicating that your priority is the safety of your students will go far in comforting and reassuring your audience that your priorities are in the right place.”

Saying “We’re so sorry this happened” is not an admission of liability, Carmichael said. “An organization should not be afraid to express its genuine sorrow or regret over events that may have transpired.”  


By Margo Vanover Porter, a freelance business and education writer in Virginia.

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