ITL #177 Strategies for managing crises: allegations at educational institutions

6 years, 9 months ago


There are five make-or- break fault lines when crisis strikes. Proactive planning and a set-up that allows for immediacy are vital in reducing the risk of reputational damage. By Sandy Lish.

Today’s educational institutions are often in the spotlight for academic excellence, athletic prowess and student and faculty accomplishments. Sometimes this positive reputation building is dampened by news stories about the high cost of education and accessibility issues. But by far, the greatest damage to our educational institutions’ reputations is crises that, unfortunately, have become too common, and can create challenges for more than just the affected institutions. Campus shootings, Title IX discrimination violations, sexual assault allegations, racial issues, litigation, and leadership transitions have become part of the daily education landscape, and every institution should be concerned.


There has been a clear transition in thinking. No longer is it, “How should we respond if” something bad happens; it’s become, “How will we respond when” it happens. Proactive planning and a structure that allows for communications immediacy during a crisis will help an institution manage risk and reputation.


I have worked with dozens of higher education institutions and independent schools, as well as many corporations and nonprofits, on crisis communications for years, and have seen what works and what doesn’t work. Institutions that collaborate thoughtfully across different divisions—administration, trustees, legal counsel  and communications—and  respond with a sense of immediacy and authenticity, have a greater ability to foster support and understanding within their communities and move beyond crisis mode more effectively.


Stakeholders, and their ability to process, respond to and move beyond the crisis information, must be understood, attended to, and treated thoughtfully. While many communicators immediately become concerned about how to handle the media, it’s critical that students, faculty/staff, alumni, donors, parents and prospective students are part of a proactive outreach strategy.


Our role as communicators is to not only create clear and consistent messaging for the school’s many stakeholders, but to have a road map in place for how crisis information is shared.  


I find there are five areas that make-or-break crisis communications success: assessment, context, decisions, strategy and spokesperson. Together, they provide a practical framework for managing a crisis; separately they can each be a fault line at which the crisis takes an unnecessary downward turn.



  • Assessment


A leadership team faced with a sensitive issue, allegation or crisis must assess the situation and its immediate and long-term risks and opportunities. School administrators must consider how this situation fits within the context of their institution, and beyond, with regard to public safety and policy, demographics and geography. It’s also important to understand legal parameters and areas of risk, law enforcement’s role and existing policies.


It’s critical to know all the facts to determine how this might play out. Here are six key questions to uncover relevant and timely information, which in turn help to define strategy:


  • What is the scope of the situation – is it a standalone issue or are there multiple matters at play?
  • What is the school obligated to disclose?
  • What is fact vs. allegation?
  • Is there an investigation – independent or internal?
  • Who does this affect, when, how and for how long?
  • What is the buzz—online and otherwise—within the school and externally?



  • Context


Consider the context for potential crisis coverage. First, the school’s profile. Is it an 800-pound gorilla—well-known, storied? That may put it squarely in the media’s sights.  If the matter is part of a trend or regional topic, then it is likely to be news, but conversely, if the issue is rare or an outlier, that can also make it newsworthy. Look at what else is happening in the school to determine the impact and timing of communications. This includes the enrollment cycle, fundraising appeals and signature events such as parents’ weekend, commencement and athletics.



  • Decisions


Once the matter has been thoroughly assessed, leadership and communications must act quickly and purposefully. Critical decisions will address the immediate need(s) at hand, while strategic and often long-term decisions can demonstrate a genuine commitment to preventing a recurrence of the issue. For instance, if the issue is a data breach, creating a taskforce to review policies and procedures, recommend improvements and develop educational programming demonstrate a commitment to better protecting the community. Decisive actions create opportunities to communicate with key stakeholders with concrete, actionable information; information voids lead to speculation, gossip, mistrust and misinformation.  


A multi-pronged approach is usually the best way to reach the many stakeholders, who do not consume or find information in the same places. For instance, email may be the quickest, most effective channel for reaching a contained audience, but we all know the challenges of keeping up with email addresses and circumventing spam filters. There might also be an existing newsletter, blog or regular meeting to leverage – so the message is delivered within a regularly scheduled channel. Or the issue may require immediacy and communication should route through social media, robo calls, text alerts and the website.



  • Strategy


Sometimes things move so quickly that it seems impossible to control the communications.  Reporters are breaking news quickly and social media fans the flames. Yet there are ways for organizations to control their messages to varying degrees, instead of being at the mercy of a third party like the media. Direct communications via social, digital and direct channels create a sense of forthrightness and transparency, which should be foundational to any strategy.


An organization should commit to providing as much information as possible, without creating risk to the institution or to those involved. The following questions then essentially can become the building blocks for the communications strategy:

  • What are the objectives?
  • What are the key messages and who can and should deliver them?
  • Who are the audiences and how are they prioritized?
  • What are the best communications tools — both earned and owned?
  • How does this affect other institutional activities and what communications must be revisited to ensure sensitivity to the matter?


Every crisis is deeply situational and must blend transparency, authenticity, confidentiality and respect for all parties involved, while managing a school’s reputation and possible future litigation. An effective communications strategy does this by considering:

  • Institutional goals—fundraising, admissions and recruitment, retention
  • Stakeholders and channels—where “conversations” will take place and who matters most
  • Promises made and delivered upon—policies, trainings, programs, communications, discipline
  • Unrelated communications that may be occurring—website, social media, events, alumni magazine—it’s important to make sure there is no missed opportunity to communicate
  • Institutional culture—being true to the mission and culture of the organization and moving forward in alignment with that spirit



  • Spokesperson


Those on the front lines of receiving and conveying messages, whether officially or informally must be armed with the right messages and the appropriate level of detail.


Before the crisis hits, it’s typically best practice to have a spokesperson who is prepared to speak publicly. I have strong opinions about using an outside PR person as the spokesperson—I believe it hurts the goals of transparency and authenticity, and can appear that the institution is not taking ownership. Depending on the severity of the matter, the spokesperson can be the president/chancellor/head of school, another administrator, legal counsel or the internal communications team. Sometimes it’s a combination of people that play different roles, including:

  • Authors of community letters and blogs
  • Community meeting speakers
  • Individual outreach, such as phone calls or emails to specific stakeholders
  • Media spokesperson, and within this role, whether there will be live, in-person, telephone or email contact.


Moving Forward

Independent schools and higher education institutions face sensitive issues and crises on a regular basis. Effective assessments, decision making and communications provide a framework to help address issues strategically and minimize organizational risk. Communicators play a key role and should be active participants from the beginning to help organizations respond swiftly, transparently, authentically, and, most importantly, confidently to all key stakeholders.

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The Author

Sandy Lish

Sandy Lish is the principal and co-founder of The Castle Group, a PR, digital and event firm based in Boston, Massachusetts. She is former chair of the Massachusetts March of Dimes board and a member of the national March of Dimes Leadership Council. Sandy is a member of the executive committee of the Public Relations Global Network, an international organization of nearly 50 independent PR firms. A proud graduate of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, she lives in Walpole, Massachusetts with her husband, two children and Wheaten Terrier.

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