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Lessons from Crises

 

Janice M. Abraham

 

After serving the risk management needs of colleges and universities for more than 25 years, it is easy to think you have seen it all. Hazing, alcohol abuse, high-profile tenure deliberations, and misbehavior by a board member represent just a sampling of recent incidents that, while unfortunate, are not unusual.

But that doesn’t mean we aren’t still surprised from time to time. We’ve learned that anything can happen, and often does.

United Educators’ (UE) role as an insurer often requires us to play the role of first responder when a crisis occurs on campus. That means we’ve learned a lot of lessons about how college and universities can prepare for, and respond to, crisis.

Lesson 1: Crises are not predictable, but they are inevitable. It’s easy to think your institution is immune, but just read the headlines of any major newspaper to remind yourself that crises can befall even the strongest and most reputable institutions, or the smallest, most remote campuses.

Lesson 2: A crisis response plan is a living document. After the initial impetus to develop them wanes, business continuity and crisis response plans all too often wind up gathering dust on bookshelves. Review your plan often. Test it regularly. Go through a mock crisis. Know what you, your administrators, and your board will do when something happens, from communicating with one another to obtaining funds in an emergency situation. One college was recently unable to purchase a generator during a weather-related incident that knocked out the accounts payable and payroll systems.

Remember that the nature of a crisis means that nothing goes as planned, so ensure support personnel also participate in any mock exercise.

It is also important to consider how seasonality will affect your response. We’ve seen institutions respond well when students, faculty, or staff are involved in a crisis. But if something happens over the summer involving a camper or visitor with no formal relationship to the campus, the crisis response plan often breaks down, leaving the families and community worried, confused, and hurt.

Lesson 3: Have expert media relations counsel ready and able to assist. You know all too well that the first words out of your mouth will be headlines in the news coverage of your crisis. While this is not the time to retreat, it’s also not the time for knee-jerk reactions designed to put minds at ease before accurate information is available.

The most important piece of advice may be this: Establish a relationship with an external communications firm now. Make them part of your mock crisis training. While most any firm can handle basic and local media inquiries, there are more specialized firms that know higher education and the national news media. Don’t fool yourself: Even the most talented university communications departments cannot always effectively handle Anderson Cooper.

Lesson 4: Poor communications can be as damaging as the crisis itself. UE learned early on the importance of both compassion and careful investigation. We subscribe to the “cool head, warm heart” approach to crisis (you can download our article on this topic from www. ue.org/presidency). The goal is to demonstrate care and concern without jumping to conclusions about culpability. With your expert media relations counsel at your side, ensure that you recognize the emotional toll of the crisis on students, staff, faculty, and family members.

Lesson 5: Remember your role. Presidents and their institutions often invite additional trouble, above and beyond the original crisis, by failing to follow established protocols. I cringe when I hear a campus president, chief of police, or other high-ranking campus official playing the role of prosecutor, judge, and jury while a crisis unfolds.

I’ve watched recent news conferences where a campus athletic director proclaimed he didn’t want “these drug-dealing athletes” as part of his athletic program. Meanwhile, a president said the behavior of certain seniors was “unbecoming of the campus values, and they are no longer welcome to be part of the community.” At best, leaping to conclusions and pronouncing verdicts while information is still emerging confuses and complicates the situation. At worst, it creates concerns over libel, slander, and ruined reputations.

While recognizing the high stakes of a campus’ reputation, “innocent until proven guilty” shouldn’t be cast aside in a rush to judgment or in an effort to put the institution’s best foot forward. Rely on campus policies to address treatment of students, faculty, or staff accused of a crime or under investigation.

While we can’t predict natural catastrophes (yet), there are things we can do to prevent some of the other crises which occur. A few tips:

  • Expand your view on use of your crisis communications plan. The 24/7 news cycle has changed the definition of “crisis.” As news unfolds at warp speed, what might be a routine, although challenging, situation, such as a tenure denial, can quickly “go viral” and become a high-profile crisis. Long before the print news hits, social media sites may be reporting on a professor’s mistreatment, and the rush to judgment begins. Use your crisis communications plan for situations like these—identifying key messages and spokespersons—to protect your institution’s reputation and develop good habits for communicating during times of duress.
  • Stay in touch with your threat assessment team. The concept of threat assessment is based on the premise that seemingly random acts of violence are often carried out by individuals who had, in the past, exhibited unusual or disturbing behavior. Establishing a broad team to monitor students, staff, and/or third parties at risk of doing harm has become an effective way to ensure that troubled individuals get the help they need before the problem escalates. An important part of an effective threat assessment team is ensuring that people across campus understand what types of behavior create concern and to whom such behavior should be reported. The team can then follow up as appropriate. Your threat assessment team should be keeping you apprised of their findings and any troubling issues. If you are not receiving regular reports, ask for them.
  • Support training efforts. A first step to prevention is knowledge. UE has put extensive efforts into online course development to help colleges and universities train their students, staff, and faculty on important issues such as prevention of harassment and sexual assault. Campuses are much more effective in adoption of such courses following the blessing by the president or the provost. This is easy; make sure it gets done.

All of us who serve education will continue to be surprised and saddened by the speed, severity, and randomness of crises that hit our communities. A thoughtful approach to crisis response can ensure that investigations can proceed (and be concluded), support families and victims, and help our campuses recover.


Janice M. Abraham is president and CEO of United Educators, a higher education-focused insurance firm based in Chevy Chase, Maryland.


 

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