Crisis Communications – Communicating Successfully

Posted By: Carol Savage NACCE Blog ,

The rapid onset of the COVID-19 virus catapulted the country into unprecedented action – and inaction, shutting down daily activities – including ending in-person classes and closing entire campuses shortly after the first virus warning sounds were made.

Community college leaders were faced with immediate challenges such as converting in-classroom learning to online learning, securing empty buildings, and taking steps to protect the health of staff, faculty, and students. Longer-term issues such as planning virtual commencement ceremonies, summer programming, and recruitment efforts, will continue to challenge administrators.

Words Matter

College administrators are also tasked with the enormous responsibility of communicating to their internal and external audiences. Whether it’s a parent, staff member, student, or members of the local media, the messages we communicate matter immensely, especially in a time of crisis.

Certain essentials of crisis communications have proven to work. Have a crisis communications plan and use the plan. At a minimum, a solid crisis communications plan should include:

  • prepared holding statements – for every scenario, from negative media fallout, to an active shooter situation. Learn more about holding statements in this article from PR Daily.
  • have a team in place – critical players should include legal, HR, PR, and other members of the executive team
  • have a back-up – if a team member is on vacation, ill, or unreachable, empower the team to make critical decisions without them or designate an alternate
  • work with what you know – when a crisis hits, the team needs to fully evaluate the situation. Once you’ve determined how to respond, communicate your message quickly, factually, and genuinely
  • disseminate info – know how to get critical information to the right place at the right time – whether it’s to parents, journalists, local officials, and so on.

The Human Side

While communicating clearly and effectively – and in a timely fashion - are all important during this global crisis, it’s also important to keep in mind that as a leader of your institution, your words have the ability to enormously impact the people you lead.  If you can provide at least one person with an additional piece of information he or she needs to make an informed decision, or help someone reduce their stress, then you’ve been successful. Encourage your audiences, both internally and externally, to practice social distancing, but not to the point of social isolation. Give credit where credit is due – whether it’s to the maintenance staff for securing empty facilities, housekeeping for sanitizing dorm after dorm, or faculty members dealing with transitioning hundreds of students to online learning - acknowledging their tremendous efforts during a critical time assures that your communications are successful – and make a difference.