Earthquakes, floods, academic cheating incidents, gun violence, #metoo scandals, and even terrorist attacks can all wreak havoc on your college’s enrollment. Unforeseen crises—whether they are destructive forces of nature or incidents on campus—are inevitable in some form, and colleges and universities have increasingly invested in preparing for crises.
However, schools too often overlook the largest source of funds for those investments: the net tuition revenue of enrolled students. Although prospective students are the future of every school, enrollment leaders are too rarely included in campus crisis preparation and few schools have enrollment-specific triage plans in place. In our view, this is a mistake.
Dick Whiteside and I previously worked together—Dick as the vice president of enrollment at Tulane University, and myself as his EAB (formerly Royall & Company) advisor—to mitigate Hurricane Katrina’s potential to devastate Tulane’s enrollment along with the buildings and beauty of its home city.
From that experience and subsequent decades spent helping partner schools through a range of calamities, we’ve developed the following suggestions to help enrollment leaders navigate a potential enrollment crisis ahead.
Survey your current and prospective students to calibrate your crisis response
When a crisis strikes, an enrollment crisis leader’s first challenge is to gain a complete understanding of the extent of the damage as different situations will demand different actions to mitigate enrollment loss. To determine the most appropriate post-crisis course for a number of our partner schools, we swiftly surveyed their inquiry pools to first discern whether prospective students were aware of the crisis, and if so, how it factored into their likelihood to apply or enroll. The results of these surveys often identified (mis)perceptions that needed to be corrected, as well as opportunities to strengthen positive views of the school.
In some instances, student feedback helped schools to determine whether or not to take dramatic actions to quell negative PR: should questionable programs be cut or staff dismissed? In other cases, our student surveys reminded response leaders that the best course of action can be minimal action. For example, a succinct email that addresses complaints about symbolic flag burning in a speech class can be sufficient to halt negative perceptions.
Use student perceptions to shape your crisis communication strategy
It is important to monitor and include current students’ social media activity in your PR response. Facebook shares and Instagram feeds have the potential to quickly spread repair messages to the young digital natives who probably comprise a large portion of your prospect pool.
Because these messages are an essential tool to mitigate enrollment loss after a crisis, we encourage actively participating in their shaping. To do this, we recommend our partners also survey and use current students’ opinions about the crisis to help them craft meaningful assurances for their prospect audience. Because current students can be either promoters or detractors on outlets like Twitter, enrollment leaders must understand and reflect their views to encourage them to put the school in a positive light.
It is essential to manage your relationships with all of your different audiences through strategically selected (and pre-planned) communication channels. Post-crisis surveys of current and prospective students, combined with our extensive research on communication channel preferences, guide our PR triage plans for a range of audiences. We know, for example, that parents of prospective students will be receptive to paper mail or phone calls, while younger audiences are most likely to view text messages favorably.
Move forward to renewal narratives
A central tenet of crisis public relations is to move beyond your bad news as quickly as possible. Crisis communications need to progress through a healing process: from tumult to survival steps to recovery and renewal. We encourage our partners to promote positive, forward-looking stories that appeal to prospective students as soon as they have taken responsibility for any role in the crisis and shared a path to restitution.
It may surprise you to learn that this kind of narrative evolution can ultimately benefit your enrollment program. Although there is no such thing as a “good” crisis, shared ordeals unite students, alumni, and community members in a common desire for a return to normalcy. And it seems that those bonds can support enrollment and retention: Tulane University students who endured the devastation of their campus during Hurricane Katrina retained at higher rates than those did not.
Like what you’re reading?
A crisis on your campus does not need to compromise your enrollment. Advanced planning that emphasizes strategic messaging can ensure misfortune does not jeopardize your enrollment and put the future of your school at risk.