In recent times it has often seemed as if the higher education sector, and the individual institutions within it, have been bouncing from one crisis to another. As senior managers we sometimes see these situations unfolding at other universities, usually reflected to us through media coverage and online commentary, and we wonder how we ourselves might handle such a challenge. Unfortunately, sooner or later, we all have the chance to find out first hand.
Over the last few years at Exeter we have dealt with a range of critical incidents, some extremely grave – tragic student deaths and displays of discriminatory behaviour from within our community – some operational – from burst water mains to campus closures due to snow – some unpredictable – from student occupations to staff members being imprisoned overseas. One thing that all such incidents have in common is that a successful response requires communication, and poor communication can turn even a minor operational incident into a reputational crisis.
In the heat of a critical incident which you know is drawing attention from stakeholders, it is important to remember that ‘reputation’ and ‘character’ are different things. As organisations, we adhere to our values, and in doing so we create and exhibit our characters. Our reputations, meanwhile, are derived from the experiences that staff, students and external stakeholders have with us. If we seek only to manage and shape our reputation, regardless of our character, then we will fail.
Conversely, if during your planning sessions and simulation exercises you are able to think actively about how your values would be demonstrated through the way you communicate during a crisis, then you can train and develop your ability to respond effectively.
Communicating in a crisis is challenging and characterised by:
- Complexity: These tend to be unpredictable and fast-moving situations
- Time pressure: Audiences need information quickly, either because they need to take some action, or because they need reassurance
- Uncertainty: There is almost always a lack of information, formed from contradictory, partial and overlapping accounts
- High risk: In a crisis, poorly judged communications can have extremely serious consequences
All crises are different and all are unpredictable. In the early stages, any immediate response is dominated and tempered by uncertainty, and this uncertainty can often be actively magnified by careless communications. On social media we see time and time again that, when something challenging is seen to have happened, then accusation, trial, conviction and attempted execution often precede any sense of clarity about what may have actually occurred. And yet we absolutely must communicate, and our timescales are measured in terms of minutes, not hours or days.
As we do so, we must be aware of balanced concerns:
Ambiguity vs Transparency
- We want to communicate
- We may have insufficient information to do so with authority and confidence
- We do not want to give misleading or unduly alarming information
Caution vs Humanity
- We want to put up a spokesperson to show empathy and leadership
- There may be no-one ready, willing or able to perform the role (see ‘Ambiguity’)
- We fear they may get trapped into saying something they later regret
Reputation vs Litigation
- We wish to protect the reputation of the organisation
- We cannot risk prejudicing ongoing investigations, or opening the organisation up to other forms of legal action
Statements once made are almost impossible to retract, and often become a significant focus in their own right. In extremis they can turn a crisis into a reputational catastrophe. Nonetheless, stakeholders will be clamouring for information and, often, rushing to judgement. A social media storm does not require clarity or the establishment of facts, and does not need to respect the necessary process.
In these circumstances we need to be in a position to say something that will stand up to scrutiny within minutes. In almost all cases you should say something quickly, showing empathy for those affected by the incident, signposting resources that they might need for support, and being clear that urgent action is being taken. If you feel it is appropriate to apologise then go ahead, and for reassurance remember the Apology Clause which makes it clear that “an apology, an offer of treatment or other redress, shall not itself amount to an admission of negligence or breach of statutory duty”.
Having your communications professionals involved in the incident response is key. Good communications involves considering issues from the perspectives of those people most likely to be affected, and designing effective messages to meet their requirements and expectations. These disciplines offer critical insights which can directly inform and influence the way the organisation reacts.
Our Student Communications Manager has a motto: “Communications is a verb”. It’s a brief but useful reminder that actions speak louder than words, and that considering what you might say and how you might say it can often help you to reconsider and reshape what you should actually do. The actions you take in addressing a crisis will be decisive in determining what happens next and how the story develops, and these ultimately will shape your reputation