The State of Crisis Communications in Higher Ed

A study released this week found that  the majority of higher education institutions have had one or more potential reputation-damaging events discussed in traditional and social media channels in the last 12 months.
In addition, while 85 percent of reporting schools in the United States and Canada have crisis communications policies, only 59 percent of those policies address the use of social media in a crisis. The study was conducted by communications consultancy in partnership with CASE (Council for Advancement and Support of Education).

The Altimeter Report on Social Readiness and research done by Weber Shandwick suggest that social media can help mitigate a crisis faster, create brand advocates in the event of crisis, and even help maintain reputation during these critical times. But most importantly, the real-time nature and reach of social media can help institutions be the go-to source of information that stakeholders, the general public, and media look to in the event of a crisis. Highlights of the survey findings are below, and a full set of survey results can be seen on the website.


The State of Crisis in Higher Education

rep damage events in last 12 monthsIn the last 12 months prior to the survey, 65 percent of the respondents  experienced at least one event reported in traditional media (television, radio,  newspaper) where there was a potential of damage to the institution’s  reputation.






times in 12 months crisis policy enactedIn the last 12 months, 49 percent of responding institutions have  had to enact their crisis communications plans as the result of a  crisis.







rep damage events in 12 months in social mediaIn the last 12 months, 66 percent of institutions reported that potential reputation-damaging events about their institutions were discussed in social media channels.






The State of Social Media in Higher Education

official university channels resizedOfficial institution channels are those main accounts that  represent the whole  university in  an official capacity. All  respondents had at least an official  Facebook page. Campus communications offices  were most often   responsible  for maintaining these accounts, with the  exception of LinkedIn, where the development/alumni  relations offices maintained the majority of accounts  for  that  channel.







units on campus with channels resizedAll campuses reported having other social media channels in addition to the official presence. For all responding institutions, only 40 percent of these accounts are managed/maintained by campus communications units. And only 26 percent of institutions reported requiring registration or training for users who represent the institution on social media channels.







The State of Crisis Communications in Higher Education

crisis policies resized smallEighty-five percent of the respondents have a  crisis communications  policy. Of those with  policies, 37 percent indicate the communications office is  responsible for implementing  the policy in the event of a  crisis and 37 percent  indicated that responsibility falls to  a  team made up of more than one  department. The  campus safety office is responsible for  crisis  communications  oversight at 12 percent of the  institutions with a policy.






address use of social media in crisis policyFifty-nine percent of the institutions with crisis communications policies address the use of social media in that policy. Only 17 percent of the reporting institutions have a plan for “unofficial” social media channels that represent the university.







elements in crisis plan resized largerRespondents were asked which of the following elements were included in their crisis communications plans. The statistic that stands out in this graphic is the lack of a social media monitoring plan that can keep institutions aware of breaking news, online and traditional media mentions of their brand, and help manage misinformation.  Only 56 percent of respondents with a crisis plan said they have a monitoring plan.






institutions with post crisis eval pieces Just over half of the institutions with a crisis communications plan have a post-crisis plan to review the effectiveness of the plan following an incident.




Best Practice Takeaways

The majority of reporting institutions saw potential reputation-damaging events discussed in social media about their institutions in the 12 months prior to the survey.  Even though the majority of institutions have a crisis communications policy (85 percent), only 59 percent of those policies address the use of social media. The data suggest that many higher education institutions are inadequately prepared to deploy multiple communications channels, including social media, as needed in a crisis. Institutions might consider implementing the following best practices:

1.       Implement a social media monitoring system. A social media monitoring system can help you keep track of what is being said about your institution in the social media universe, alert you to issues you may not be aware of, and help you gauge public understanding and sentiment around an issue. There are many good social media management systems (SMMS) that include monitoring as a component. An adequate monitoring system can be pieced together with little or no cost using several applications. This list of tools from Tripwire Magazine includes some low cost and free tools. Jeremiah Owyang of Web Strategy has put together a more extensive and research-based review of enterprise level tools here. The important concept is to build a monitoring system that tracks mentions of your brand in online media. The system can be as simple or as elaborate as you have time, resources, and people for. But experts agree a monitoring system is primary, and the sooner implemented, the better.

2.       Develop a social media policy. There is a misunderstanding among many that a social media policy is a prohibitive document. The best social media policies operate as guide rails that empower people to use social media channels responsibly in a way that builds the organization’s brand. In Owyang’s research on social media readiness, every top-rated company in the report had a social media policy. Those companies with social media policies were also the most successful in crisis and reputation events. The policy should include a training or on-going education element as well. CASE has a collection of sample social media policies available to members at

3.       Implement a social media management system. A social media management system (SMMS) should have multiple functions that can facilitate monitoring, publishing, lead and conversion tracking, measurement, and customer relationship management, depending on what your institution’s social media strategy is (see Jason Falls’ report on management systems). The system may or may not include monitoring, but at its most basic level, it should allow for multiple accounts and administrators to post and manage to your social media channels.

4.       Establish registration or affiliation of campus social media accounts. Universities would be well-advised to develop a training program or best practice guidelines for anyone representing the institution in the social media space. Also, establishing a database of administrators and passwords held by a community manager allows the university to remove old accounts or delete or post to any university-related account in an emergency. The majority of reporting institutions do not have guidelines for “unofficial” social media channels representing the university. The majority also did not have a plan for how those accounts should be used in the event of a crisis. Best practices for affiliated social media accounts are emerging from institutions like  University of New Hampshire, Tufts, and others who are establishing a center of online connection opportunities affiliated with the institution.

5.       Establish a community manager for campus social media. Even though this last takeaway may seem redundant, many reporting institutions did not have one single supervisory department for all campus social media. This does not imply that one department should handle all campus social media, but that there should be a centralized resource that acts as a hub to the campus “spokes” so there is continuity in branding and messaging, especially in the event of a crisis.


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