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Crisis Communications Challenges for Universities and Colleges

The education landscape has changed drastically. Colleges and universities have become ground zero for public relations crises.

From controversial on campus speakers to criminal or public safety incidents higher education institutions now handle several crises each year. The communications teams at colleges and universities need to be prepared and proactive to plan, train, mitigate, and respond to all types of crisis situations.

A small incident or off hand comment by a professor can cause weeks of disruption at a school. News outlets from The Washington Post to the Wall Street Journal to Fox News have covered controversies on campus. And a cottage industry of publications like Campus Reform have focused coverage on controversies at institutions of higher education.

When a crisis strikes, there are many considerations you must make. You need communications strategies that have buy in from university stakeholders. You need to prepare your response for internal and external audiences. Some of the nuances of academia like shared governance, tenure, or academic freedom can be challenging to communicate and might be lost on the general public.

The best crisis management plans account for the unique world of academia, but also help the universities or college break their internal teams out of the academic bubble.

What are the most common potential communications crises for universities and colleges to anticipate?

Public Safety Crisis Management

Unfortunately, public safety crises have become a reality on college campuses. These crises can include things like crimes against students, crimes committed by students, or active shooters. In every case, it is critical to have a crisis communications plan in place along side your emergency alert and safety planning so you have a comprehensive communications response, not a siloed public relations response and emergency response.

Political Crisis Management

Colleges and universities have long valued academic freedom and a free exchange of ideas, but recently schools have become political targets. Often, these political crises start with controversial on campus speakers or statements by professors. Diversity and Inclusion initiatives have also prompted political attacks. University leadership needs to be prepared with strong, principled responses to weather political attacks. Schools also need comprehensive public affairs plans that have a strong understanding of the stakeholders and the political environment locally and nationally.

Personnel Crisis Management

Universities and colleges are large institutions with many employees including some who are likely high-profile. With increased public scrutiny of higher education, your employees can quickly come under attack especially on digital and social media. Schools also have to be prepared to handle a range of other personnel issues from sexual harassment to controversial publications. Personnel crisis response can involve litigation or legal action, and can require an experienced team with discretion.

What should Colleges and Universities look for in a Crisis Communications and Public Relations Firm?

Fitler Square Strategies is a communications firm that specializes in creating crisis communications plans as well as a full range of crisis communications and public relations services. We have extensive experience as strategists for high profile leaders and institutions. We provide reputation management services, and we can help institutions of higher education manage their message in a crisis. We have experience dealing with crises in the education industry, as well as a proven track record of successful crisis management and developing comprehensive communications strategy that protect organizations' reputations.

We have specific expertise in education, working with higher education institutions and K-12 institutions to plan for a manage crisis. Our experience with government, politics, and working with the Department of Education gives us a holistic view of the education landscape the challenges presented to institutions.

Crisis Planning

We work closely with in-house teams to provide planning support and media relations. We work collaboratively with the institution to ensure that crisis management efforts align with the institution's mission, values, and objectives. We have decades of experience with issues management and have developed plans for hundreds of scenarios. We provide creative solutions and strategies to address crisis within the educational institution.

Crisis Training

When have experience with crisis training at the highest levels. Working with emergency management officials, we have trained in crisis situations with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. We have provided media training for high profile individuals along with counsel and tactical support to provide support to clients. In advance of a crisis, we work with clients to train and plan so the entire team is prepared when a crisis puts them under public scrutiny.

Crisis Response

We have expertise in crisis communications and public relations, with a strong understanding of media relations, social media management, and crisis messaging to help you and your team respond immediately. We are available 24/7 to respond to any crises that may arise and provide immediate support to the institution in its response to the media and public. We work with clients to ensure they have a strong, comprehensive response and we provide communications guidance for crisis situations. We have led responses to some of the highest-profile events of the last decade including train derailments, active shootings, and the COVID-19 pandemic. We work we organizations to make sure they survive the crisis and emerge stronger.


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