Campus Communications in the Age of Crisis
By Patricia McGuire, President, Trinity Washington University
Published in the Fall 2007 issue of The Presidency, the American Council on Education’s Magazine for Higher Education Leaders
© 2007, The American Council on Education.
Murder on campus – blood-chilling thought for any college president. But what if the president doesn’t even know that a murder investigation is under way? That seems to be the case at Eastern Michigan University, where news reports claim that the president and campus community did not learn about a student’s murder until the perpetrator was arrested – two months after the victim’s death in her dorm room at the hands of another student.
Murder was also the tragic topic in April when a deranged student killed 32 people at Virginia Tech. Two hours elapsed between his first two killings and his later attack on full classrooms in Norris Hall. Could a more effective communications system after the first two shootings have prevented the subsequent deaths of 30 students and faculty in those classrooms?
Time was when the rules of campus communication were pretty simple: Whisper “snow day” in the dean’s office and the place shuts down in five minutes; put “Parking Policy” in the subject line of a memo and still those students caught parking in the faculty lot will claim that they never, ever heard about such an outrageous policy.
Times have changed, though snow days still elicit joy and parking notices still evoke amnesia. A series of natural and human catastrophes – September 11, Hurricane Katrina, Virginia Tech, and Eastern Michigan – have focused higher education’s attention on crisis communications as never before.
At the same time, the means of communication have proliferated even as students, faculty, and staff live in a broad diaspora far from the main campus. No longer can the president or dean summon the student body to meet in the grand hall to hear an important announcement. Student e-mail boxes provided at university expense can remain full for the entire semester while phone numbers change with each monthly bill. Students prefer instant messages and social networking sites, keeping their contact information very private.
Short of headlining each message with a lurid title, what can presidents and administrators do to improve the effectiveness of campus communications, particularly to be sure that the right information reaches students, faculty, and staff in moments of crisis?
In 18 years as Trinity’s president, I’ve had my share of opportunities to learn the ropes of crisis communication – from wars to crimes to hurricanes (yes, even in Washington, DC!) to terrorism to inflammatory public letters to investigative reporters heading down blind alleys. Along the way I’ve learned these lessons about campus communications:
- Tell the Truth, Tell It Quickly, Tell It Often. There is no substitute for the truth. Period. You and your college can survive bad news, but deception can ruin a presidency and cause great harm to an institution. Delays in communication can be as harmful as lying. Get out in front of the public communication of difficult news as quickly and frequently as possible.
- Important News Travels Quickly. The campus grapevine can be used advantageously if the administration cultivates the habit of truthful, rapid, open communication. Gadgets are no substitute for communication. The impulse to invest in yet more technological wizardry will not improve crisis management if the open communication culture does not already exist.
- Do Not Assume “That would never happen here!” If it can happen on a college campus, it can happen on yours. Presidents are paid to be planners; scenario planning for crisis communication is an essential part of risk management today.
Have Something to Say About Important Issues: Crises should not be the only time the campus community or local media hear the president’s voice. A track record of routinely interesting, thoughtful presidential communications can strengthen the president’s ability to communicate through difficult times.
Following are some real situations in which I put these rules to the test.
Terrorism, Crime, and Other Threats
No moment in my two decades as president was more terrifying than the hour immediately following the September 11, 2001, attack on the Pentagon here in Washington. As I joined hundreds of students and faculty in a large meeting room watching the twin towers of the World Trade Center burning on television, reporters broke in to say that more planes were heading toward Washington. Rumors of bombs going off in downtown Washington raced around the room. Panic was rising, and for a few minutes I felt utterly helpless. There was no script for managing a campus that felt under attack, however remote the actual possibility.
“What are you going to do?” an anxious dean implored me, and I, frankly, had no idea – for about a minute.
Then I swung into action, mobilizing the administrative team’s response, but more importantly, reassuring the campus community that we would take care of them. I wasn’t quite sure of what that might mean in each case, but what was most important was to project a sense of calm and control, however elusive, at an emotionally awful moment.
Within minutes our administrative team made all internal phones and computers available to help students and staff contact families, and within hours our Health Services and Campus Ministry teams had organized response programs. Within a day we communicated with all of our graduates and public constituencies, conveying a sense of concern for those who had lost loved ones while inviting the large Trinity family to share thoughts that we posted online and on bulletin boards. Communications were rapid, sensitive, and deeply appreciated.
We had not had any prior experience with this kind of crisis communication. We had no plans for such a scenario, and yet we operated flawlessly for that very intense period of time. When the crisis was past, we wrote an emergency plan based on our experience, hoping that we’d never need it ever again.
Unfortunately, a month later, the still-unsolved anthrax incident at the post office in the Brentwood section of Washington where Trinity’s mail was processed created yet another previously unimaginable communication challenge. Then along came the DC sniper in October 2002, and in September 2003 Hurricane Isabel raced up the Chesapeake Bay, shutting down power for days. With each new incident, we refined our emergency plan. We learned that the best method to communicate emergency information to everyone was a telephone hotline supplemented by blast messages on e-mail and voicemail, and information posted on the home page of our web site. Secondary communication links remained vitally important: radio and television notices and, of course, flyers and handouts in the dining and residence halls.
During each incident, I also learned anew what every president should know instinctively: The information is important, but personal communication is what makes the difference. Students, faculty, and staff want to see and hear their campus leader in times of crisis. Visiting the dining hall and residence halls, asking students and personnel to tell their stories, and expressing concern for everyone’s emotional welfare are as much the essence of leadership in crisis moments as communicating the facts clearly.
As emotionally disruptive as any criminal incident, an anonymous and racially offensive letter burst its toxic particles across our campus in 1997. It happened during a time of many changes at Trinity, including dramatic changes in our student body as we became a more diverse institution. I made a great mistake on the first day of this incident: I failed to denounce this scurrilous letter publicly and immediately, thinking that its distribution was limited to me and a few other administrators. On the second day, a number of African-American students came to me demanding to know why I had not taken immediate action.
The 24-hour delay was seen as somehow colluding in the hateful message. I send out a memo denouncing the hate letter (this was before e-mail, so paper was the method of response), but what I had not anticipated was that the perpetrator had selectively sent the letter to various students as well as to the media. Within three days all major television stations in the Washington region were camped out on Trinity’s front lawn.
We spent a good six weeks that spring cleaning up after this ugly situation, and I learned a lot during that time – such as how to handle reporters who adopt an accusatory tone, and how to mobilize faculty to use class time to discuss difficult issues in ways that can defuse a campus crisis.
I also was besieged by people claiming that they could help me and Trinity – for a fee. Presidents need to be wary of the predatory behavior of people who want to exploit campus crises for commercial gain. I saw this again after September 11, with many companies eager to sell everything from satellite phones to bomb shelters, and again after the Virginia Tech tragedy, with vendors pushing even more expensive investments in new communication devices.
No device can substitute for thoughtful, rapid, personal communication with all campus constituencies in a crisis. When the news is important, the campus grapevine itself can be mobilized into a rapid hotline if the top administrators are willing to share information quickly and clearly. The best method is the first rule: Tell the truth, tell it quickly, tell it often.
Having My Say
My first encounter with blogs came because of a student’s complaint that other students were making fun of her through their online journals. As I learned more about this curious new medium, I was initially aghast when I saw how revealing their online lives had become. I sought out some of the students and chided them for being reckless. They rolled their eyes.
Then, Trinity’s web master suggested that I should join the blogosphere, and very quickly I banished my inner schoolmarm and discovered my hidden pundit. Having my own blog is a terrific forum to address issues reflecting Trinity’s values in women’s education and advancement, social justice, and global concerns.
Through the blog, I’ve been able to address delicate issues in our larger Trinity family. For instance, an alumna wrote to me about her advocacy for same-sex marriage and the alienation she felt from Trinity because of her lifestyle. With her permission, I used our exchange of messages on this topic to open up a discussion with lesbian alumnae. I’ve had other “conversations” on the blog with concerned Catholics objecting to Trinity’s expressions of pride in the success of our alumna Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (class of 1962), and with other constituents concerned that our new Intelligence Studies program somehow undermines our commitment to social justice. While my blog does not take “live” comments, when a piece evokes critical commentary on e-mail, I try to run the comments without rebuttal.
My blog also became a device to help defuse difficult issues. When a story appeared in The Washington Post about a new program Trinity opened in a low-income neighborhood in southeast Washington, students objected to what they perceived as a racially patronizing description of the program participants. I used the blog to post these critical comments and a lively dialogue ensued, an effective management tool that kept the conversation in perspective.
In the Loop and Out of Trouble
Colleagues can pose the greatest challenges to effective campus communications. Some administrators believe that the president “should not be bothered” with certain information, often using FERPA (the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) as a veil obscuring effective internal communication. Higher education’s deep suspicion of corporate forms means that some administrators share the faculty’s sense of autonomy when it comes to concepts like chain of command—a weird phrase to use in a collegiate setting! Yet the president’s risk management responsibilities include ensuring an effective communications chain of command.
Denial is never a good defense for a chief executive officer. Evidence that the administrative culture keeps the president out of the loop does not mean that the president has a good style of delegation, but rather, in today’s information culture, it means that the president is clueless, and possibly irresponsible.
My final rule of campus communications is “no surprises.” Keeping me in the loop helps ensure that everyone (and Trinity) stays out of trouble.