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Crisis Communication: Best Practices

Public Relations Issues in Higher Education

Adam Visconti

on 21 September 2014

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Transcript of Crisis Communication: Best Practices

Crisis Management:
Best Practices

Public Relations Issues in
Higher Education

Case Study
Best Practices

Public Relations
The Big Picture
The practice of managing the flow of information between an individual or an organization and the public
Aim is often to persuade the public, investors, partners, employees, and other stakeholders to maintain a certain point of view about the institution
Media relations, news, communications, and publicity
Web site design
Multimedia production
Community outreach
Government relations
Alumni magazine publication
Crisis Management
Crisis Management
An event that threatens or challenges an organization's legitimacy or image (Coombs & Holladay, 1996)
An event that has the potential to endanger an organization's reputation, profitability, and survival
Crisis Management
Proposes strategies for preparing for and handling crisis events
Applying public relations strategies and tactics to prevent or modify the impact of a crisis on the organization and minimize damage to the organization, stakeholders, and industry (Stocker, 1997; Kreps 1986; Coombs 2007)
Can you name a crisis on a university campus...
That was handled well?
That was handled poorly?

Was the university crisis-ready?

What crisis management techniques did that
university employ?
Case Study: Virginia Tech 2007

What happened?

What did the University do?
Graphic example of the breadth and depth of crisis management and crisis communication
The setting of the shooting at a college campus is a real and vivid illustration of crisis management in action.
What happened?
The morning of April 16, 2007

7:15 - 911 call reports that two victims, a male and a female, had been shot inside West Ambler-Johnston Hall
7:24 - Police arrive on the scene
7:30 - Police follow up on a lead who was off-campus
8:25 - the Policy Group (comprised of top administrators including the senior public relations official) convened
9:26 - the Policy Group sent out a mass email to students an employees
informed the university community about the shooting
urged everyone to be cautious
Adam Visconti
April 3, 2013

Being prepared to respond to crises through...
The development and implementation of formal crisis-management plans
Plans for two-way communication that builds relationships with internal and external stakeholders
Strategies for providing effective leadership within the culture of the school community
Three Cs of Crisis-Ready Organizations
Crisis-Management Plans
Communication with key stakeholders
Cultural Leadership
What did they do?
9:45 - the Policy Group is notified of the second shooting

Within five minutes, a campus-wide emergency alert, "gunman on the loose," was emailed and broadcast over four loudspeakers on campus

As rescue efforts began, an email was sent to all Virginia Tech email accounts to cancel classes, ask all recipients to stay where they were, lock their doors, and stay away from windows.

10:52 - the Policy group sent another email to provide further details of the crisis, noting that there had been multiple shootings with multiple victims in Norris Hall. It intimated that the shooter had been arrested and that police were continuing to search for a second shooter.

12:42 - President Charles Steger spoke at the first press conference
What happened?
9:40 - Seung Hui Cho initiated the second shooting spree
Immediately killed 30
Injured 17
Concluded with his suicide
Critiques of VA Tech
The Policy Group
Had a crisis communication plan (The University Relations Crisis Communication Plan)
Had a contingency plan (The Emergency Response Plan)
Did not evaluate the University Relationships Crisis Communication plan after the William Morva incident in 2006 or after bomb threats to three residence halls on April 13, 2007
Slow response after the first shooting (two hours and 11 minutes between the first shooting and the first email)
Failed to notify students prior to the start of the second-period classes (began a 9:05, email was at 9:26)

The Loudspeakers
Only four of the six outdoor speakers were operational
Used late in the crisis (toward the end of the second shooting spree)

Procedures were in place for broadcasting emergency messages via local radio and television stations, but these were not utilized.
What They Did Well
When analyzing crisis communication, be aware of the two main areas of content:
Compassion - expresses concern and sympathy for the victims of a crisis
Instructing information -conveys information about a crisis and provide stakeholders with instructions of what to do

President Steger (in his first public statement around noon on April 16)
Expressed sympathy
Extended sincere condolences to all those affected by the shootings
Briefly reiterated the known facts at the time

The University
Held regular press conferences twice a day in the days to follow
Established a 24-hour call center
Utilized its website in the crisis response
Held a convocation ceremony on campus on April 17 to facilitate the beginning of the healing process
Speakers included Virginia governor Tim Kaine, President George W. Bush, and Nikki Giovanni, distinguished professor of English at Virginia Tech
"We are sad today, and we will be sad for quite a while. We are not moving on. We are embracing our mourning. We are Virginia Tech. We will prevail. We will prevail. We will prevail. We are Virginia Tech."
"Record-breaking increases in enrollment and donations as well as a stronger-than-ever school spirit serve as evidence that Virginia Tech successfully responded to the crisis in the minds of its own university community, alumni, and the general public" (Wilson, 2008)
Best Practices
Multiple Sources for Communication
Coordinate Communications with Local Police
Use a Broad Range of Communication Tools
Advertise What to Do in an Emergency
Keep Emergency Email Systems Updated
Use Web, Radio, and PA Systems
Involve Communications Office from the Beginning
Multiple Sources for Communication
Warning sirens strategically located on campus
Desktop notification system
Emergency information line (outgoing message)
Campus radio station to disseminate emergency information during critical incidents and disasters
Emergency phone notification
Voice messages
Text messages
Coordinate Communications with Local Police
Create a radio patch directly into the city policy frequency to expedite information sharing
Ensure that police are involved in keeping information accurate and up-to-date
Use a Broad Range of Communications Tools
Loudspeakers around campus
Radio and PA equipment in the residence halls
Explore the possibility of using the sirens on the "blue light" emergency poles around campus to warn of an emergency or as a public address system
Use social media in addition to the University website
Text-only site for quick access
Advertise What to Do in an Emergency
Designate a special emergency information page on the University website with information on what to do in each emergency
Campus campaigns like "Know Where to Go" remind students to find a security officer or secure location in an emergency
Keep Emergency Email Systems and Lists Updated
Example of Baylor University
Have students list cell phone numbers for quick contact
Keep an updated list of emails for all students, faculty, and staff on campus each semester
Consider narrowing based on campus locations
Create an app that would have push notifications to notify students in addition to text messages and phone calls
Use Web, Radio, TV, and PA Systems
Web site postings
An automated message line
Campus cable TV emergency alert system
Local radio stations
Door-to-door notifications
Use PA systems that are normally used by the athletics department
Involve Communications Office from the Beginning
Ensure that the director of media relations is there to advise on communications strategies for both the media and the university community
Include in the response plan the creation of a site for media availability immediately outside the perimeter established by the safety personnel managing an emergency scene
from the Association of American Universities
Best Practices
from the Journal of Applied Communication Research
Process Approaches and Policy Development
Pre-Event Planning
Partnerships with the Public
Listen to the Public's Concerns and Understand the Audience
Honesty, Candor, and Openness
Collaborate and Coordinate with Credible Sources
Meet the Needs of the Media and Remain Accessible
Accept Uncertainty and Ambiguity
Communicate with Compassion, Concern, and Empathy
Messages of Self-Efficacy
Process Approaches
and Policy Development
Risk and crisis communication is most effective when it is part of the decision process itself.
Communication strategies should be fully integrated into the decision-making process.
Higher-quality decisions are made when the concerns and needs of key audiences are taken into account as part of the decision-making process.
Crisis and risk communication is most effective when it is part of an ongoing process:
Pre-crisis communication activities (communication planning and educating the public about preparation)
Post-crisis resolution phase (communicating lessons learned and rebuilding relationships damaged by the crisis)
Pre-Event Planning
Identify risk areas and corresponding risk reduction
Pre-setting initial crisis responses so that decision making during a crisis is more efficient
Identifying necessary response resources
Build from other university's and company's crisis communication planning templates
Include structures that allow for regular updating and revision
Partnerships with the Public
The public (really, everyone) has the right to know what risks it faces
Ongoing efforts should be made to inform and educate the public
Myth: the public will panic if it has accurate information about a crisis - not supported by research (Tierney, 2003)
Listen to the Public's Concerns
and Understand the Audience
Take public concerns into account and respond accordingly
Establishing positive relationships and goodwill before an event is critical to the successful management of a crisis
Whether accurate or not, the public's perception is reality
Honesty, Candor,
and Openness
Necessary to build credibility and trust before and during a crisis
Honesty - not lying
Candor - communicating the entire truth as it is known, even if the truth may reflect negatively on the university
Openness - refers to a kind of accessibility and immediacy in crisis communication
Meet the Needs of the
Media and Remain Accessible
Reframe: Don't view the media as a liability
Instead, engage the media as a strategic resource to aid in managing the crisis
Avoid inconsistency by accepting uncertainty
Avoid temptations to offer overly reassuring messages
Provide media training
Identify crisis spokespersons
Accept Uncertainty and Ambiguity
Waiting until all uncertainty is reduced usually means that the warning is too late.
Acknowledge the uncertainty
"The situation is fluid."
"We do not yet have all the facts."
Allows the communicator to refine the message as more information becomes available
Not a strategy to avoid disclosing uncomfortable information or closing off further communication
Communicate with
Compassion, Concern, and Empathy
Enhance the credibility of the message
Enhance the perceived legitimacy of the messenger
Reframes both the crisis-related message and actions
Reluctance to express concern and empathy to maintain professionalism is often perceived as cold and uncaring.
Messages of Self-Efficacy
Research emphasizes the importance that provide specific information telling people what they can do to protect themselves
Restores some sense of control over an uncertain and threatening situation
May be as simple as encouraging people to monitor the media or website for additional developments
Messages could also focus on what to do to help others (e.g. donate food or money, avoid the area, or check on neighbors)
Other actions may serve meaningful social functions (e.g. flying the American flag after 9/11)
Keep messages clear, consistent, and meaningful
What crisis communications strategies (email, text, phone calls, websites, social media, etc.) do you believe you would find to be most effective?
Have you ever been involved in an event or experience when crisis communication was necessary?
What minimum training do believe student affairs professionals should receive, if any?
Risk vs. Crisis
Risk communication - associated with health communication and efforts to warn the public about the risks associated with particular behaviors
smoking, unprotected sex, drinking and driving, etc.
Crisis communication - associated with public relations and the need for institutions to repair damaged images after a crisis or disaster
Association of American Universities (2007). Survey on safety on AAU campuses after the Virginia Tech shootings. Association of American Universities.

Carlson, S. (2007). When a campus is in the national spotlight, public-relations officers feel the heat. Chronicle of Higher Education, 53(34), A17.

Fischer, K. (2008). Virginia Tech weighs hundred of recommendations and acts on some. Chronicle of Higher Education, 54(32), A15.

Seeger, M. W. (2006). Best practices in crisis communication: An expert panel process. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 34(3), p. 232-244.

The tragedy at Virginia Tech: A case study. (2007, October 24). Public Relations Problems and Cases. Retrieved from http://psucomm473.blogspot.com/2007/10/tragedy-at-virginia-tech-case-study.html

The Virginia Tech shooting: Implications for crisis communication in educational settings. (Spring 2012) Journal of School Public Relations, 33(2), p. 78-102.
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