Crisis Management for College Administrators

PR Crisis Management Strategies for College Administrators

There is a long history of college protests centered around emerging social and political issues in the United States. During the recent highly charged protests over the Israel-Hamas war, we witnessed civil unrest, clashes between police and protesters and counter protesters, that resulted in a total shutdown of some campuses and classrooms.

These campus protests have highlighted the pivotal role of college administrators in crisis management. As issues rapidly escalate into crises, anticipating and effectively managing these situations becomes a crucial skill. Administrators must be prepared to handle crises while navigating through divisive issues that are not easily solved to everyone’s satisfaction.

Best Practices For Higher Education Crisis Management

Effective crisis management is not just about mitigating damage but also about maintaining the integrity and trust of your institution. Placing a high priority on the safety and well-being of the campus community, staff, students, neighboring businesses and residents, leaders can begin to lay the foundation for successful outcomes.

Preparedness And Planning

There’s a never-ending list of issues that higher education leadership must plan and prepare for, including political discourse, diversity, student education, staff training and potential fraternity misconduct. Therefore, ongoing training, planning and preparedness are vital in responding swiftly to emerging issues and crises. 

A comprehensive crisis management plan establishes boundaries and sets expectations during a crisis.

Establish clear policy for staff response and conduct before, during and after a crisis occurs. Conduct regular drills to help staff become familiar with their roles and responsibilities during a crisis. Also put together training materials on crisis communication protocols for staff and administrators. This ensures that when a real crisis hits, everyone knows what to do, which reduces confusion and enhances the effectiveness of the response. Establish a single point of contact for all communications to students, media and community to ensure clear and consistent messaging.

Immediate Response

When a protest erupts on campus, administrators must act quickly to address the situation. A clear, concise initial statement acknowledging the problem can decrease tension and misunderstandings.

For example, the University of Florida responded immediately to the recent campus protests with a list of prohibited items and activities. These activities would result in trespassing orders, suspension, and a three-year banishment from the campus.

University spokesperson Steve Orlando said nine protesters were arrested for “clearly prohibited activities.” This sharply contrasts with what we saw at Columbia, where the college’s administrators did not act when protesters broke the rules. 

Instead, they tried negotiating with protesters and gave students deadline after deadline to leave the encampment. They also allowed faculty members to join the students, shielding them from consequences. This resulted in harassment of Jewish students, antisemitism, and 119 arrests for burglary, criminal mischief, and trespass.

Transparent and Consistent Communication

Rumors and misinformation are rampant during a PR crisis. Transparent and consistent communication is critical because it:

  • shows coordinated efforts
  • helps maintain stakeholder trust
  • reduces uncertainty
  • prevents the spread of misinformation

During a crisis, college administrators should be honest about the situation and the steps being taken to address it. Case in point, the University of Chicago was transparent about its stand after protesters demanded the university take a position on the Israel-Hamas war.

After breaking the encampment, President Paul Alivisatos said that these inflexible demands were incompatible with the University’s dedication to institutional neutrality. This drew a line in the sand on what the university could and could not do.

Engaging with Stakeholders

When considering university stakeholders, we often think of students and faculty, forgetting others like local community members, taxpayers, staff, alumni, and parents. Before taking a stand, engage these stakeholders to understand their concerns and perspectives.

Understanding their concerns and perspectives can help administrators keep all stakeholders satisfied. In the Israel-Hamas protests, the often poor response to demonstrations affected all stakeholders equally.

On some campuses, parents and taxpayers watched their money being used to support frequently violent and chaotic demonstrations without their involvement. This resulted in negative media coverage and graduation cancellations.

Support and Resources

In times of crisis, our mental health is greatly affected. Ensure mental health and counseling services are readily available for students, faculty, and staff. These resources can help individuals cope with the emotional impact of the protests and any associated stress or anxiety.

In addition, faculty and staff are responsible for addressing sensitive topics during classroom discussions. Considering that students’ opinions differ, as seen in the clashes between pro-Palestine and pro-Israel groups in Columbia, you must prepare your faculty and staff to manage these discussions effectively.

Guide them on addressing sensitive topics and handling potential conflicts to ensure a more supportive and respectful campus environment.

Monitoring and Adaptation

Continuous monitoring allows college administrators to stay informed and adapt their strategies as needed. This includes social listening and monitoring news reports. An informed administration responds to emerging issues promptly and effectively.

In addition to monitoring channels, you should seek feedback from the community to improve ongoing communication efforts. Feedback provides insights into how the crisis management strategies are received and what adjustments might be necessary.

Post-Crisis Reflection and Improvement

Once the immediate crisis has been managed, a post-crisis review is essential. This review should assess what worked well and what didn’t, providing valuable lessons for future crisis management plans.

By reflecting on the response and making necessary improvements, administrators can enhance their preparedness for future crises.

Final Thoughts

Effective PR crisis management by college adminstrators requires a combination of preparedness, timely response, transparent communication, stakeholder engagement, and continuous improvement.

The strategies outlined in this article provide a solid foundation for managing PR crises professionally and effectively.

Need help preparing for crisis management challenges? THO will help your higher education institution anticipate and manage crises effectively with a comprehensive crisis management plan.

Leeza Hoyt

~Leeza Hoyt