The ELA is proud to welcome our newest member firm: LOGOS  in Iceland!
The ELA is proud to welcome our newest member firm: LOGOS  in Iceland!


Crisis Communications in US Higher Education

Submitted by Firm:
Tueth Keeney Cooper Mohan Jackstadt P.C.
Firm Contacts:
Ian P. Cooper, Melanie Gurley Keeney
Article Type:
Legal Article

4 Simple Tips About Crisis Communications in US Higher Education:

  1. Develop a Flexible Crisis Communication Plan: Create concise, actionable playbooks that address both subject matter and process preparedness. These should outline potential crisis scenarios and define clear messaging strategies, while also ensuring rapid access to crucial information and contacts. Remember, a plan needs to be adaptable to unforeseen circumstances.
  2. Foster Strong Internal Relationships: Cultivate a collaborative environment between legal, communication, and administrative departments. Prioritize establishing trust and open lines of communication long before a crisis emerges. This ensures a unified response when handling a crisis, balancing legal concerns with communication needs.
  3. Understand and Navigate Social Media Dynamics: Recognize the impact of social media on crisis communications. While it's impractical to respond to every social media post, monitoring trends and being prepared to issue accurate, thoughtful responses is key. Remember, the immediacy of social media requires a balance between rapid response and ensuring message accuracy.
  4. Embrace Decision-Making Under Pressure: Accept that not every decision will please everyone and that some level of discontent is inevitable. Cultivate a culture where decisive action is valued, and be prepared to stand by these decisions. Good judgment and the ability to withstand pressure are critical in navigating the complexities of crisis communications in higher education.

Navigating the Complex World of Higher Education Communications

Welcome to a thought-provoking exploration of crisis communications within the realm of US higher education. This topic, critical in today's rapidly evolving educational landscape, is brought into focus on our acclaimed podcast, Employment Matters. Hosted by Kate Nash, an esteemed attorney at Tueth Keeney Cooper Mohan Jackstadt P.C., our podcast is a proud offering of the Employment Law Alliance, the world's largest network of labor and employment lawyers.

In this episode, we're thrilled to bring you insights from leading experts in the field. Joining us are Bill Feldman, Senior Counselor at Legend Labs, and Scott Cole, Shareholder and Higher Education Team Leader at Gray Robinson. Their extensive experience and deep knowledge in both crisis management and higher education offer invaluable perspectives on the challenges and solutions in this domain.

In a world where higher education institutions face unprecedented challenges – from handling sensitive legal issues to navigating the ever-changing social and political landscape – effective crisis communication has never been more critical. This blog aims to unpack these complexities, offering practical advice, innovative strategies, and real-world examples to guide institutions in managing their communications effectively.

The Multifaceted Nature of Higher Education Institutions

Higher education institutions present a unique environment ripe for crises, significantly more complex than many other organizations. Bill Feldman from Legend Labs highlights the inherent challenges, noting the decentralized nature of large institutions with multiple schools, each with its own dean and often independent fundraising and operations. Athletics departments, with their high visibility and often separate governance, add another layer of complexity.

The Demographic and Governance Challenges

The demographic of 18 to 22-year-olds, known for their vibrant yet unpredictable behavior, and a faculty that includes tenured professors with significant autonomy, further complicate the communication landscape. Unlike the top-down discipline of corporations, higher education operates on a shared governance model, adding to the complexity, especially in public institutions with political ties and sensitivities.

Navigating the Political and Social Landscape

Scott Cole from Gray Robinson adds to the discussion by addressing the 'mission drift' of universities, expanding beyond traditional roles of teaching, research, and service to become educators and advocates on social issues. This shift has not only attracted attention but also criticism, particularly from political quarters, making it challenging for universities to navigate their roles in society effectively.

Balancing Internal and External Communications

Crisis communication in higher education encompasses both internal issues within campus and external societal issues. Institutions must decide whether to comment on external issues like the Israeli-Gaza conflict. Scott Cole suggests a thoughtful approach: understanding the institution's identity, history, culture, and the expectations of its various stakeholders before taking a stand.

In managing such crises, the first step is preparation. Institutions should not find themselves addressing these issues for the first time as they arise. Instead, they should have a clear understanding of their stance on societal issues, guided by their history, culture, and the expectations of their community, including students, faculty, and donors.

Developing and Implementing Crisis Communication Policies in Higher Education

Developing and Implementing Crisis Communication Policies in Higher Education

Bill Feldman emphasizes the challenge of 'mission creep' in universities and the necessity for institutions to define clear policies on public communication. However, he points out that even well-crafted policies can struggle under the weight of public or student pressure. He cites an example of a large Midwestern university entangled in the abortion debate, illustrating how external issues can impose severe pressure on institutions to respond.

The Importance of a Flexible Policy Framework

Despite the challenges, Feldman advocates for the development of communication policies, understanding that they may need to be adapted in certain situations. It's crucial for universities to anticipate different scenarios and decide in advance on issues such as who is authorized to speak on behalf of the university, and how mid-level personnel like deans should interact with media. Preparing for these contingencies is key, even though it's impossible to foresee every issue.

Scott Cole adds that unlike private corporations, universities have less control over what their students and faculty say, yet these statements are often attributed to the institution. This dynamic adds complexity to crisis management, as universities must navigate the fine line between allowing freedom of expression and dissociating themselves from certain viewpoints.

Responding to Student-Led Communications

In situations where student actions or statements gain public attention, universities may be compelled to respond. A core part of the messaging strategy for higher education clients is to clarify that while they support free speech, it does not equate to endorsement of the views expressed. However, as Feldman notes, the public often struggles to understand this distinction, holding institutions responsible for their students' and faculty's statements.

The issue is further complicated by faculty members participating in public demonstrations or expressing views that may not align with the university's stance or donor expectations. As Feldman explains, while faculty speech outside the classroom is protected, it can still pose significant challenges for the institution's image and relationships.

Preparing for Crisis Communications in Higher Education

Bill from Legend Labs underscores the importance of practical, actionable crisis communication plans. He discourages overly complex, hundred-page documents in favor of concise 'playbooks' that focus on both subject matter and process preparedness. Subject matter preparedness involves anticipating likely crisis scenarios and developing generic messaging that can be tailored to specific situations. Process preparedness involves having rapid access to essential information, lists of contacts, and media outlets, ensuring that everything is organized and easily accessible when needed.

Balancing Legal Concerns with Communication Needs

Addressing the tension between legal and communication departments, Bill highlights the importance of considering the institution's long-term interests and not getting swayed by immediate concerns. He notes that experienced lawyers and communicators know how to navigate this balance, respecting each other's perspectives while prioritizing the institution's overall reputation.

Bill also emphasizes the importance of aligning crisis communication with the institution's values, such as transparency and agility. He references Jeff Hunt's book, "Brand Under Fire," which delves deeper into the significance of these values in crisis management.

Insights from a Legal Perspective

Scott, with his extensive experience as a general counsel, discusses the need for a strong relationship between legal and communication teams. He stresses that legal risks are just one aspect of an institution's overall risk profile, and sometimes litigation concerns must take a backseat to other considerations. Scott advocates for contextualizing legal risks and focusing on the institution's best interests.

Both Bill and Scott agree on the value of simulations and tabletop exercises in crisis preparedness. These exercises help teams anticipate unforeseen challenges and refine their crisis response plans, ensuring they are ready to act effectively in real situations.

Navigating Social Media in Higher Education Crisis Communications

Scott discusses the impracticality of responding to every social media post due to the sheer volume and pace of online discourse. He emphasizes the importance of monitoring social media trends, especially those influencing the institution, and acknowledges the impact of social media on all aspects of communication, often favoring timeliness over accuracy.

Strategies for Social Media Engagement

To effectively manage social media during a crisis, it's crucial to balance the need for prompt responses with the necessity of accuracy. Acknowledging issues transparently, even without immediate solutions, can be beneficial. However, Scott warns against the dangers of disseminating incorrect information, as it can complicate future communications and legal proceedings.

Bill echoes Scott's views, highlighting the compressed time frame in which social media operates. He advises against the mindset of 'getting ahead' of a story, as the rapid spread of information online makes this nearly impossible. Instead, he suggests a focus on effective monitoring and decision-making based on real-time data. Despite the hazards, Bill also sees opportunities in social media for direct and targeted communication with key constituencies.

Both experts agree on the critical need for sound judgment and strong internal communication in managing crisis situations. They stress the importance of having the right people in decision-making roles, capable of navigating the complexities and variability of crises.

Navigating Imperfect Decisions and Enduring Pressure

Navigating Imperfect Decisions and Enduring Pressure

Scott reminds us that in the realm of crisis communication, especially in higher education, the pursuit of perfection is often elusive. Making tough decisions, acknowledging that mistakes are inevitable, and understanding that not everyone can be pleased are crucial lessons. The key is to do the best you can, stand by your decisions, and be prepared to ride out the storm.

This discussion particularly resonates in the context of higher education, where administrators are accustomed to addressing and reconciling diverse viewpoints. The reality, however, is that some situations will invariably lead to widespread dissatisfaction, no matter the decision made. This is a challenging but essential aspect of crisis management in such complex environments.

Cultivating a Culture of Resolute Leadership

Creating a culture where decisive action is taken and upheld, even in the face of discontent, is vital for effective crisis management. This doesn't negate the importance of listening and considering various perspectives, but it emphasizes the need for resolute leadership when circumstances demand it.

We extend our heartfelt thanks to Bill and Scott for their seasoned advice and invaluable insights into crisis communications in higher education. Their expertise offers a wealth of knowledge for administrators, communicators, and legal professionals navigating these turbulent waters.

Connecting with Experts and Resources

For those seeking further guidance, we encourage connecting with Bill, Scott, and other experts in the field. The Employment Law Alliance offers a plethora of resources, including webinars, white papers, and a comprehensive online library, all aimed at enhancing your understanding and approach to labor and employment law issues globally!