SummitET® Strategic Communications experts discuss crisis communications fundamentals that higher education institutions can incorporate when addressing controversial and sensitive issues with their stakeholders.

There has been quite a bit of groundswell on university campuses and social media about sensitive and controversial topics. The pace at which issues emerge and make headlines is increasing rapidly, and they seem to have a significant lifespan.

In today’s episode of Bridging the Gap, SummitET Senior Vice President Adam Montella speaks with our team of Strategic Communications experts about crisis communications fundamentals that higher education institutions can incorporate when addressing these challenging issues with their stakeholders.

What are some sensitive and/or controversial communication issues facing university campuses right now? 
  • Antitrust scrutiny with college athletics 
  • Proliferation of artificial intelligence 
  • Plagiarism and research integrity 
  • Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and race relations 
  • Free speech, safe space, and first amendment 
  • Domestic and international political environments 
  • Natural, manmade, and technical disasters 
  • Campus protests 
  • Active shooter incidents 
  • Sexual harassment and exploitation
  • Reputation management

Note: SummitET exercises and trainings do not cover each of these topics individually; rather, they utilize proven crisis communication strategies to address a broad spectrum of controversial and sensitive issues.

Footprint of Influence 

The challenges these issues cause go beyond the boundaries of the campus. They have local, regional, and national effects. They can impact university funding, athletics recruitment, and campus operations. We’ve also witnessed how the response to the issues holds the potential to damage the personal and professional reputation of individuals as well as the brand of higher education institutions.

The data backs this up. A June 2023 Gallup poll indicated that Americans’ confidence in higher education institutions has declined to its lowest point.  

    Gallup Poll 2023

    A 2022 George Washington University Government Communications and Public Affairs study was conducted to assess public trust in messaging as well as to identify areas for improving communications between government and private sector practitioners. It found that the lack of public trust in government is largely due to a few external factors, including a rise in disinformation, views that the government is politically-motivated, and the hyperpolarization in politics. The study also found that these external factors are often caused by internal communication challenges within the organizations such as an outdated onesizefitsall approach and excessive bureaucracy which lead to inefficiency, disorganization, and slow sharing of information.

    Credibility and Trust 

    Reputations are won or lost in a crisis. Universities are well-versed in handling the everyday crisis; however, new and emerging communication issues present unprecedented challenges which may require additional training and exercises in order for university leaders to be prepared to respond effectively. 

    In order for a stakeholder audience to accept a university’s messaging, the spokesperson must be perceived as being a trustworthy and credible source of information. They should also be able to shoulder the university or organization during a crisis. Credibility can be shared by association; the trustworthiness of a spokesperson can be used to amplify the trustworthiness of the university.

    Key Characteristics of a Trustworthy Spokesperson 

    If these characteristics can be demonstrated during a crisis, it is more likely that the audience will be able to internalize the message and see how it affects them and their belief systems. 

    Key Characteristics of a Trustworthy Spokesperson
    Effective Crisis Communications Response 

    Effective crisis response is comprised of two simple things: what we do and what we say.  

    Every stakeholder in a crisis expects you to care; a foundational strategy in crisis communications is thus a timely demonstration to the stakeholder that you care and will continue to care as long as that expectation exists. 

    Statements and actions that are stakeholder-centric should be at the core of your communication response strategy. Develop communications strategies and messaging for each stakeholder audience (e.g. students, parents, teachers) to really instill confidence in the university’s ability to manage sensitive and controversial issues. 

    You have three seconds to make your first impression as you get your message across virtually, in-person, or in writing. It is important that in these three seconds you are perceived in a positive manner. 

    Five Components of the Crisis Communication Continuum 

    Furthermore, there are five components of the Crisis Communication Continuum that should be considered as you develop your communication strategy for the higher education community.

    5 Basic Criteria for the Crisis Communication Continuum
    The Golden Hour  

    Incremental delays in showing that we care can have a greater than incremental impact on trust. We can operationalize the Golden Hour – the first hour following a crisis – in ways that are both explanatory of the past and predictive of the future. The cycle of human interaction through digital technology largely dictates the Golden Hour; we therefore must forecast and be proactive in developing messages to successfully establish credibility and build trust.

    The Golden Hour
    The Rule of 45 minutes-6 hours-3 days-2 weeks 

    If you can demonstrate that you care within the first 45 minutes, you can mitigate fear and build trust. If you can consistently show that you care thereafter, you can maintain that trust. 

    If you can’t show that you care within six hours, the narrative will largely be overtaken by other sources, such as influences with louder voices or more clout. 

    If you can’t show that you care within three days, then you will likely face at least two weeks of negative media and a complete loss of trust. 

    The Rule of 45min, 6hr, 3days
    Build a Communications Plan 

    Start from and commit to your institution’s core values and develop all strategies from there. 

    Build your crisis communications team to include leadership, communicators, and other appropriate staff. 

    Develop prescripted messages that are tailored to possible crises. You can adjust those messages later with your communications team if you have a strong core. 

    Don’t be silent. Silence says something, and allows time and space for critics, adversaries, or the media to set another narrative.

    Meet the Experts Featured in This Podcast

    Mark Basnight VP | Strategic Communications

    Mark Basnight

    Former Comms Analyst for DOE/NNSA Enterprise & Public Information Officer (MPIO)

    Holly Hardin Director of Strategic Communications

    Holly Hardin

    Former Comms Analyst for DOE/ NNSA Enterprise & Emergency Management Lead at ORISE

    Ron Edmond, Crisis Communications Subject Matter Expert

    Ron Edmond, Ed.D.

    Former Acting Director of ORISE Emergency Management Lab & Crisis Communication SME

    Adam Montella, Senior Vice President at SummitET

    Adam Montella

    Former GM of Emergency Management for the NY & NJ Port Authority & Disaster Management SME

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