Bridging the Gap Episode 5: Crises Create Crises: Applying the IDEA Model to Crisis Communication at Higher Education Institutions

Bridging the Gap Episode 5: Crises Create Crises: Applying the IDEA Model to Crisis Communication at Higher Education Institutions

In part two of this series focused on strategic communication for higher education, addressing sensitive and controversial issues, SummitET® Strategic Communications experts sit down with internationally recognized scholars of risk and crisis communication, Deanna Sellnow, Ph.D. and Tim Sellnow, Ph.D. to discuss how communicators and decisionmakers can integrate the IDEA Model for effective risk and crisis communication to address sensitive and controversial issues. Higher education institutions can use the IDEA Model to create their own communication framework which is easy to understand, remember, and employ during unprecedented crises experienced at their institutions. 

What is the IDEA Model?

The IDEA model for risk and crisis communication provides spokespersons with a framework for communicating sensitive and controversial issues during times of crisis.  Grounded firmly in theory and empirical research, IDEA uses four key components – Internalization (I), Distribution (D), Explanation (E), and Action (A) – to craft messages and communicate them effectively. 

The IDEA Model
Addressing Communication Gaps and Challenges

Many existing risk communication message templates have an overemphasis on explaining the science behind the risk, leaving the audience concerned but without recommended actions to protect themselves. In other words, the communication was sender-oriented, with an emphasis on information output and a lesser focus on the intended receiver and actionable outcomes. In many cases the communications trainings left lingering questions such as “Was the learning happening? Were people understanding what was going on, realizing its relevance, and taking the appropriate actions?”

The gap between information output and receiver input was in part due to the lack of readymade templates like the IDEA Model. This model was designed to help those who wanted to communicate effectively during a crisis event while ensuring their information was comprehensible to the receiver. 

    Applying the IDEA Model to Higher Education Institutions 

    Higher education is facing several different crises, many related to navigating world events such as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and Ukraine-Russia conflict. These global, social issues are difficult to discuss and need to be analyzed and addressed in a multi-faceted way, and that is what the IDEA model helps to accomplish.

    Ensuring Stakeholders Understand the Potential Impact of the Crisis 

    Start by identifying the existing information stakeholders have received, then determine how they are interpreting the situation and the risk. Using that knowledge to enhance the messaging around the real (or perceived) risk to develop a more nuanced explanation from an understandable perspective.

    What Process Do Universities Use to Engage with and Understand Their Stakeholders?

    Internalization is not linear; it is very much fueled by dialogue. Higher education institutions can be good at stimulating dialogue and listening to student groups, but not always. As previously mentioned, it is important to start with where the listener is coming from, and then create a mutual understanding about a situation rather than dictating to others the impact and the relevance of a risk or crisis.

    Determine the Most Effective Channels of Communication

    Best practice is for university administrators to simply ask stakeholders what communication channels they use and then commit to effectively using those technologies and pathways. Listening is key. Twenty years ago, risk communication best practices recommended identifying a single best spokesperson and single best channel for delivering messaging. With the advent of 24/7 access to various social media channels, it is critical to have multiple spokespersons converging with a similar message across multiple platforms. Redundancy is not bad; consistency is good.

    “Redundancy is not bad; consistency is good.”

    How Do You Determine the Best Communicator for the Message?  

    It depends on the target audience. Universities have many different stakeholders, and they tend to hold credibility differently from various spokespersons, influencers, and sources. It is important to identify the opinion leaders for your intended audiences. Those opinion leaders are sometimes social media influencers who are needed for their credibility with the target audience that the scientist or academic researcher does not have.

    “We need to be vigilant during the quiet times.”

    To remain adaptive to shifting opinion leaders, we need to be vigilant during the quiet times. When a crisis erupts, it is too late to identify who the influencers are. It is important to have identified multiple stakeholders with diverse perspectives during the quiet periods to create a network that can easily be tapped when needed. If you leave out an influencer in your planning phase, they will have ample opportunity to reach a broad audience on their own, with a message which may not be accurate or reflect your intended message.

    Putting the IDEA Model into Action 

    Surprisingly, the action element was missing from risk communication previously. The audience received the message of risk but were not given concrete actions they could take to protect themselves. Without action, the credibility of the message deteriorates quickly. The cultural norm of the United States is self-efficacy, what can individuals do to protect themselves and those they care about. Cross-cultural research has shown collective efficacy and community effort is critical to reducing harm and mitigating risk.

    As crisis communicators, we should provide stakeholders with an action plan which includes what they can do, what they should do, and what they must do depending on where you are on the crisis timeline. Furthermore, for the plan to be effective, it must be clearly communicated and feasible, so the intended audience can take action without getting bogged down in details.  

    Future Applications of the IDEA Model 

    There is potential for the IDEA Model and the dialogue that comes with it to help expose middle ground on polarizing issues. It works by requiring communicators to listen and internalize the thoughts and feelings of those affected by an issue before moving forward. Surveys have increasingly shown individuals on both sides of any given political spectrum value the middle ground, especially when they believe they are moving toward it. 

    For the past three years, Dr. Deanna Sellnow and Dr. Tim Sellnow have worked with the DECIPHER Project, a multi-country research collaborative of crisis communication scholars. They studied how authorities and the media in seven different countries affected people’s ability to protect themselves against COVID-19 and be better prepared for the next crisis. This collaborative research looked at government communication, citizen responses, and media coverage and focused on the nuanced differences across the seven represented countries. Understanding these cultural nuances is a critical lesson for crisis communication in the globalized society we live in. 

    Final Takeaway of the IDEA Model 

    As communicators go forward with the application of the IDEA Model, we need to remember to capitalize on the quiet times and build relationships and networks across cultures and other barriers of difference. We should stay vigilant between crises so when they do erupt, we will already have a Community of Practice in place to be able to disseminate a redundant, consistent message. Strategic communication is ongoing and social capital can and should be built during those quiet times. 

    To further engage with Dr. Deanna Sellnow’s and Dr. Tim Sellnow’s work: 

    • Check out their new book: Before Crisis: The Practice of Effective Risk Communication 

    The IDEA model offers a simple and user-friendly approach to crisis communication. Its application highlights the shortcomings of poorly coordinated and poorly executed risk and crisis communications during a crisis event. Adopting the principles of IDEA offers organizations and media outlets the chance to greatly improve disaster communication. 

    Meet the Experts Featured in This Podcast

    Deanna Sellnow, PhD

    Deanna Sellnow, Ph.D.

    Professor of Strategic Communication &
    Co-creator of the IDEA Model

    Tim Sellnow

    Tim Sellnow, Ph.D.

    Professor of Strategic Communication &
    Co-creator of the IDEA Model

    Holly Hardin

    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

    Bridging the Gap Episode 4: Crisis Communications for Universities

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    SummitET to Present Radiation Communications Strategies at National Radiological Emergency Preparedness Conference (NREP)

    Summit Exercises and Training LLC (SummitET®) experts will be presenting at the 34th annual National Radiological Emergency Preparedness Conference (NREP) in Dallas, Texas from April 29 to May 2, 2024.

    The mission of NREP is “to provide a professional forum for individuals involved with the Offsite Radiological Emergency Preparedness programs to gather in the spirit of continuous self-improvement to share program experiences, develop solutions to common challenges, and create innovative planning, exercising, and training methodologies.”

    SummitET offers multi-agency radiological preparedness exercises, trainings, and workshops for emergency planners and field personnel, led by our team of Strategic Communications experts, Certified Health Physicists, and Radiation Safety experts.

    Join our expert sessions during the 2024 NREP Conference:

    Keynote: “Using AI for Enhanced Radiological Emergency Preparedness Planning and Outreach: Emerging Threat or Emerging Opportunity?”

    Session 8 | Tuesday, April 30, 8:30am

    Holly Hardin

    Holly Hardin

    Director of Strategic Communications


    Artificial intelligence (AI) stands at the forefront of revolutionizing various aspects of our lives. AI’s ability to analyze vast amounts of data in real-time and its capacity for automation, predictive analytics, natural language processing, and image recognition are providing efficiencies and enhancements in all areas of preparedness. AI’s dynamic role in our lives is shaping how we plan for, respond to, and recover from evolving threats and complex challenges that demand a multifaceted approach to preparedness. However, these efficiencies and opportunities do not come without inherent risks and challenges. Ethical considerations and potential challenges associated with AI implementation to prepare for, respond to, and recover from a radiation emergency will also be addressed. At the end of this session, participants will gain an understanding of how AI is revolutionizing and shaping the future of radiological preparedness planning and outreach.

    “Effectively Communicating With Patients and Healthcare Staff During a Radiological Event”

    Steve Sugarman, SummitET
    Ben Maltz, Washington Department of Health

    Session 23 | Wednesday, May 1, 10:15am

    Steve Sugarman, Vice President

    Steve Sugarman, CHP

    Vice President | Corporate Health Physicist


    Healthcare providers dealing with those involved in a nuclear power plant incident or other radiological emergency need to be able to understand the situation and make good decisions. Effective communication between health physicists and healthcare providers during a radiological emergency is critical to achieving positive treatment outcomes. Those tasked with medically managing victims of radiological incidents may be expected to have the same concerns as other members of the public when faced with a radiation event and may therefore have questions that could affect their willingness to respond or their ability to respond without the distraction of worrying about a misunderstood hazard.

    Concerns that may need to be addressed include, but are not limited to: What are the risks associated with treatment of irradiated patients? Is it safe to admit a contaminated patient into the hospital? What are the priorities when treating a contaminated injured patient? How can I protect myself from radioactive materials?

    Patient concerns are also an issue that needs to be addressed. Effective communication with patients and/or their families can have a significant impact on the healthcare organization. Examples of where effective radiological communications with patients/involved individuals play an important role for the healthcare institution: addressing an emergency room full of the worried-well, patient acceptance of prognoses or medical countermeasures, support at triage or population monitoring areas, and others.

    While health physicists understand their roles include dose estimation, contamination control, etc., many do not understand their communication roles. Taking the time to develop good messages and effectively communicate with the involved individuals will ensure the healthcare provider understands the risks and priorities associated with a radiological response and the patient understands the implications of the radiation dose they may – or equally as important – may not have received.

    “Readability and Accuracy of DRDs at Low Doses of Radiation”

    Angela Leek, SummiET
    Scott Wendt, Iowa State University

    Session 28 | Wednesday, May 1, 1:55pm

    “Decoding the Response: Leveraging Mental Models in Radiological Emergencies”

    Session 40 | Thursday, May 2, 2:15pm

    Angela Leek

    Angela Leek, PhD, CHP

    Director of Radiological Solutions and Regulatory Affairs


    Readability and Accuracy of DRDs at Low Doses of Radiation

    The 2019 REP program manual suggests that offsite response organizations provide emergency workers (EWs) with two direct reading dosimeters (DRDs): a low range and a high range. This recommendation is based on the observation that higher-range dosimeters, like those reading 0-SR or 0-20R, might not show changes at the 500mR dose level. There’s concern that such dosimeters might lead a responder to receive their maximum allowed dose of 5 rem before noticing any accumulated dose. This risk arises from applying correction factors, often around 5 times, to account for internal doses. In contrast, lower-range DRDs, which are believed to reflect lower doses more accurately, might max out before reaching the dose limit. Thus, the two-dosimeter approach is suggested.

    However, there are limited scientific data about high-range DRDs’ capability to detect and display doses at the lower end of their scales. Furthermore, few studies gauge how well emergency workers can spot minute changes below the 1 R level on high-range DRDs.

    Our study assesses the response of high-range pencil dosimeters and their readability, especially for responders unfamiliar with radiation environments. Issuing two DRDs might be challenging operationally; emergency workers could face confusion about which to read or report, potentially adding to the stress of their tasks.

    In this follow-up presentation from one made at NREP in 2023, we’ll present data gathered from the general public, representing emergency workers at a NPP incident. These participants were tasked with reading high-range DRDs exposed to low radiation doses to assess their ability to accurately read each dosimeter at low exposures (below 1 R).

    Decoding the Response: Leveraging Mental Models in Radiological Emergencies

    Imagine standing at the precipice of a radiological emergency—where the knowledge you hold and the myths you believe could spell the difference between control and catastrophe. This is where our recent research kicks in, revealing a reality that isn’t surprising to most who have been in the field for a while: the mental model of emergency responders, their grasp on radiation and risk, can have a significant impact on how they respond. Those who have confidence in their training and in the leaders directing them more effectively executed expected response procedures. But there’s a catch: if they have the wrong idea about the risks of radiation—for example, thinking that a 25-rem dose is more dangerous than it actually is—their performance takes a hit.

    It’s time to take a close look at what misconceptions our current approach to training may be subtly reinforcing. Ask yourself: Are the myths of radiation fully dispelled in your training? Is your own knowledge influenced by ingrained fallacies? Using insights from this recent study and a tool called
    the EMMS Diagnostic Matrix, we’re set to reshape our understanding of emergency response behavior. But knowing is only half the battle; the real challenge lies in applying this knowledge to develop more effective training methods, perhaps through virtual reality experiences, and then evaluating their effectiveness. This session is more than a presentation—it’s an invitation to learn how we can use innovative approaches to improve our understanding of responders’ training needs and our collective approach to radiological risk perception.

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    Radiological and Regulatory Programs Technical Support
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    Scenario-based media simulations add realism and interest to any exercise, briefing, or training activity. By developing compelling mock newscasts and narrative videos that establish a scenario and help drive drills and exercise play, participants are provided the opportunity to work in a fast-paced, decision-making environment. Each simulation is customized to meet the intended audience’s specific learning needs.

    Full Spectrum news media simulation exercises include mock newscasts, social media play, digital and print injects, and live interviews. By combining all elements of news media, you can ensure your team stands ready to interact in real-time with the media in the face of a crisis.

    Here are some things to look for when choosing a company to lead your news media drills and exercises:

    • Industry Experts in news and multimedia
    • Dynamic Real-Time Injects
    • Interactive Elements
    • Realistic Mock Stories
    • Digital and Social Media Experts

    Experts at SummitET have identified a four-step process where we integrate the full spectrum of simulations. To learn more, download our informational sheets below or connect with our experts directly via the contact form below.


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    Contact our experts to see how your company or agency can better prepare and exercise your strategic communications in the face of a crisis.

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    Strategic Communications Institute for Preparedness®

    Training programs that extend beyond typical baseline training offered for those responsible for communicating prevention, protection, mitigation, response, and recovery information. Learn more about our industry experts and competitive pricing.


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    Bridging the Gap Episode 4: Strategic Communications for Higher Education: Sensitive and Controversial Issues

    Bridging the Gap Episode 4: Strategic Communications for Higher Education: Sensitive and Controversial Issues

    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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      SummitET Experts to Attend 2024 Joint Civil and DoD CBRN Symposium

      SummitET Experts to Attend 2024 Joint Civil and DoD CBRN Symposium

      Summit Exercises and Training LLC (SummitET®) experts are attending the 12th Annual Joint Civil and DoD CBRN Symposium in Washington D.C. March 13 – 14, 2024.

      This year’s symposium will convene senior level experts from across the military, federal government, state and local responders, and academia to explore effective CBRN incident detection, protection, and recovery strategies amid a dynamic threat environment. It will also feature a panel that will highlight the utilization of emerging technologies and capabilities to bolster recovery and response in a CBRN-affected, densely populated urban environment.

      SummitET subject matter experts can assist in areas of mission support, planning and policy, and crisis communications for CBRN threats and hazards. We specialize in the design, facilitation, and support of federal and state CBRNE and WMD training and exercises that test, validate, and improve incident prevention, preparedness, and response capabilities and address known emerging threats.

      SummitET at 2024 Joint Civil & DoD CBRN Symposium

      The real-life experience of our team members makes all the difference in the support we offer. Their expert backgrounds include biological threat response, bomb technician, CWMD coordinators and operations, CBRNE hazmat, detection, and sampling, FBI counterterrorism, emergency management, crisis communications, and much more.

      Conference attendees can connect with SummitET experts to discuss our CBRNE preparedness solutions for current and emerging threats, including exercises, training, plan development, and war-gaming.

      Learn more about our preparedness capabilities

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