How to Manage a PR Crisis


How to Manage a PR Crisis

Episode 141. March 7, 2023.

Welcome to the Office Hours with EAB podcast. You can join the conversation on social media using #EABOfficeHours. Follow the podcast on Spotify, Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, SoundCloud and Stitcher or visit our podcast homepage for additional episodes.

EAB’s Angela Street is joined by DC-based PR professional Stacy Skelly from The Reis Group, for a conversation on managing PR during a crisis. The two discuss how to prepare a crisis communications plan before disaster strikes, how to communicate with key audiences, and pitfalls to avoid in the heat of the moment.

They also discuss ways to overcome challenges common within the university setting, that can make it difficult to reach consensus when developing messaging for public consumption.



0:00:11.3 Speaker 1: Hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. Today we sit down with a Washington DC-based public relations professional to talk about how to manage, or better yet, prevent a PR crisis from throwing your institution into chaos. Give these folks a listen and enjoy.


0:00:34.1 Angela Street: Hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. My name is Angela Street and I'm one of the directors of research advisory services at EAB. And one particular aspect of my job is helping university leaders, cabinet leaders, to plan for and to really navigate their way through many difficult challenges. So, as you can imagine, there are plenty of those challenges to go around, of course, these days. But what we're gonna focus on for the next 30 minutes or so is how institutions communicate with the campus community and the general public, of course, in times of crises. And with me today, to explore this topic and subject is communications expert Stacy Skelly from The Reis Group, which is a Washington DC based public relations agency. So, Stacy, thank you for joining us today.

0:01:32.9 Stacy Skelly: Awesome. So glad to be here.

0:01:36.6 AS: Excellent, excellent. Well, let's just kick it off here with tell me a little bit about yourself and of course, your role, at The Reis Group.

0:01:44.0 SS: Sure, sure. So, as you've noted, the Reis Group is a small public relations woman-owned PR firm here in Washington DC and we focus on health, healthcare, and societal issues. And I'm a senior vice president here. And my job is really to help organizations, associations, companies, foundations, use communication strategies that share their advocacy goals with the world, that help share their expertise with the world. And I bring about 20 years of experience in that space. A chunk of which, a large chunk of which was a corporate communications team at a global education company. So I spent a lot of time with higher education institutions and their leaders. And so in this work, both with higher ed experts and those in the field, and other organizations, we often are helping them understand how to manage a crisis or an issue, they haven't quite risen to crisis level yet.

0:02:44.2 AS: Hey, great. We're so interested to hear your perspectives today, and we'll jump right in and have this conversation. So, you know, can I ask you why organizations should or do hire crisis communication experts? So maybe, in other words, what are maybe some of the most complicated challenges that institutions, companies, organizations have to tackle, of course, and why maybe you wouldn't just bring some folks together, executive team when things go awry, and just put out a statement? What's your perspective and of course, expertise in that resolve?

0:03:27.8 SS: Yeah. Well, the reality is crisis communications are issues management. All that planning should ideally happen long before there's an issue or a crisis to manage. So sometimes too late at that point, you might be running around like a chicken with your head caught off if you're trying to deal with an actual issue and you don't know how to communicate about it. So really in the heat of the moment, you forget things you, you don't understand maybe everything that you need to be saying to the world. And so ideally, a person in a communications role helps you think through those things. And ideally that's happening before sort of these flashpoints even exist. So, really it's about thinking it through in advance, and making sure that the way you communicate is aligned with your mission as an organization and it's aligned with your values.

0:04:18.1 AS: Absolutely.

0:04:21.3 SS: And so, I mean, I know that for university leaders, they're in the mix every day on campus, and I know you work with them every day on campus. Certainly without necessarily naming any names or calling anyone out, I just wondered if you had a sense of how effective university leadership teams tend to be at communicating in these times of crises.

0:04:41.5 AS: Yeah, and I'm glad you brought up the term flashpoints here is what we typically use at EAB and of course in higher education as well. And I wanna start by maybe defining what that is. It really a flashpoint being a climate related incident or an event that may cause some sort of disturbance in the community or media such as, you know, heightened levels of activism, media and public scrutiny. And of course, reputational damage. And risk identification practices many times in higher ed tend to overlook these flashpoints. And so what we've found through our research here at EAB is currently most institutions, they do rigorously track and manage those risks such as financial, operational and compliance related risks.

0:05:32.6 AS: You know, someone's coming after us, right? In response to those issues. But reputational risks, especially climate flashpoints are largely overlooked. And traditional risk management offices generally just don't have the expertise to identify, prioritize, and address reputational risks because of the unfamiliar and rapidly shifting terrain in itself. So the gap, of course, is concerning because many colleges and universities believe that they just don't have the ability to withstand a major reputational risk event. So to give a data point, because that is what we do and share in research, in higher education, is that 54% of institutions believe that they don't have the ability to withstand these major reputational risk events.

0:06:24.0 SS: Wow. More than half of them. That's incredible. Well.

0:06:29.5 AS: Absolutely.

0:06:30.0 SS: I think, I think they can do it. They just need to put a little work in. So, one of those places where they should probably think about putting some work in is around understanding who their audiences are. So would you be able to share a little bit about what you think the different target audiences are that a college or university might wanna be thinking through during sort of a flashpoint or a climate crisis, if you will, and maybe some examples of a school that's got a solid set of protocols in place?

0:07:00.1 AS: Yeah, so, as far as, for target audiences to think about, would typically be obviously your faculty, staff and students, and those who it directly affects, but also as we think about alumni and neighboring communities around us that may be directly impacted by what happens as a result of the incident. And then we think even more broadly, we think about our donors associating with whatever topic and or interest that they are collaborating with us on in order to invest, of course in our institution. So there's certainly a great number of stakeholders that we need to think about as we are releasing these particular statements.

0:07:42.4 SS: So I know Angela you mentioned that word flashpoint. Maybe you could give a couple examples or some thoughts about what some of those typical campus flashpoints might be to help bring it to life.

0:07:55.3 AS: Certainly, certainly. So, we've seen for decades, I guess since colleges have been colleges, there have been student protests of, certainly, a range of different issues. So that's not necessarily something new to us, but social media was not always something that was before us. So there is a lot of social media monitoring that's going on, or that continues to go on just depending on the types of flashpoints and things of that nature that are taking place on campus. But more specifically, to answer your question, it could be a number of things. It could be a controversial political appointment, to the board of trustees of someone that students don't serve in the same, or identify the same political party as that individual or some controversy around that person's placement. It could be something that's happening outside of the institution.

0:08:52.0 AS: So for example, many protests surrounding the murder with George Floyd during that particular time, and then how that lands back at the institution and equality, things of that nature. Tuition increases. We see that internationally, right? We all have to pay tuition to go and attend colleges and universities. So you can see a lot of that happening. But I will say most recently, over the past three years, what was very evident was COVID 19 response. So what were the PPE requirements and what were students expecting for service, during that particular time? So many things have not changed over the years. It's more the ways in which students are communicating their activism, is certainly, happening in many different ways than your traditional stand-in protests.

0:09:52.3 SS: Yes, absolutely. I mean, I think that's true. The whole world around us, it's changing. And university leaders need to be prepared for that.

0:10:00.6 AS: Excellent. Excellent. Well, let me ask you, Stacy, so what are some of the first steps you go through when you get the call from a company or an institution that's knee deep in a PR disaster, and they haven't necessarily planned for this?

0:10:18.0 SS: I think first up is, gathering the facts. So nothing's kind of worse than going out and not knowing the truth, or at least the truth as much as you can get to it. So understanding who has information, knowing enough to feel confident making some kind of public statement or posting something online. It's really important to sort of get that baseline because without knowing that you might sidestep right into something you didn't mean to do. So first of all, gather the facts and then, you know, our university leaders need to be acknowledging the situation in front of them. So they want people to understand that they've heard the issue in front of them, whether that's tuition increase, whether it is some of those student protests that you've talked about, and that they're either taking action or they've at least heard the voices that are being shared with them.

0:11:15.1 SS: So they wanna be clear in any public statement that they're aware, they're engaged, and maybe hopefully what they plan to do about it. So time's sort of an essence when you're facing one of these situations, you wanna be clear to get the facts, you wanna be sharing where you are and what you know, and tell a little bit about what you're gonna do next. So that's a step that sometimes is forgotten. So how is it that you're gonna take action as a university to move forward? And really we tell all of our clients that ideally, again, like I said, the planning should be happening beforehand. You've said many of these issues are ones that campuses have faced time and time again. So it shouldn't necessarily be a surprise when some of these flashpoints take place. So, you know, really it's about planning, trying to stay ahead of it and then going from there.

0:12:11.0 AS: Sure, sure. So, I guess ideally though, what kinds of systems or playbooks should an institution put in place, so they're prepared before trouble does find them?

0:12:24.5 SS: Yeah. Do some scenario planning. What is it that is most likely to happen on your campus? Often they know as part of their strategic plan, if there's gonna be changes in the tuition, for instance, or if you're gonna name a new chancellor, or if you're thinking through what those reactions could be on campus. So knowing, thinking strategically as a university leadership team about those potential flashpoints, thinking about what's likely to happen, what might happen in those situations and what could happen. That's certainly something we talk a lot about here. So you can plan for what's likely to happen and what might, and of course you do wanna plan for what could happen, even if it doesn't seem likely.

0:13:09.6 SS: So that's certainly one thing. Then know who your audiences are. You talked a bit about those. So how will each of these groups of people perhaps react differently to something that's coming down the pike. And then know what your response strategy might be. So is that a statement that you can have at the ready? Is it social media posts? How do you plan to get that message out the door? And who's gonna be the owners of doing those things? So creating a good monitoring and tracking system, having a decision tree or sort of an ownership tree and understanding who's gonna make some of those final calls, I think is really key.

0:13:50.3 AS: Yeah.

0:13:51.5 SS: And so, you know, often you mentioned social media is one of those things that's changing, changing the nature of the work, both for communicators and university leaders, but every organization's a little bit different. So depending on their governing structure, and it might be more difficult for some to mobilize than others and reach a consensus during a crisis. So, as you were listening to me describe some of my work and the best practices, what kinds of challenges would you see in adopting those practices in a typical university governance structure or frankly just the culture of higher education?

0:14:27.0 AS: Sure, sure. So, challenges can, many times, I'll say, can be avoided in many situations, of course, that you mentioned. And effectively managing climate flashpoints is a campus-wide priority that requires advance, just as you were stating advanced discussion and planning among its senior leaders, with of course the advice coming from the Office of Communications and PR department as well. That certainly, those conversation happening on a very regular basis. So while student affairs and campus safety, and again, university communications may take the lead in responding to a particular incident, it's critical that all institution leaders have this baseline understanding of the current flashpoint landscape.

0:15:20.4 AS: So are we listening to the news? Do we know what students are saying? Are we paying attention to what we're monitoring on social media so that we can't effectively be proactive in this institution-wide response, so to speak, that could be troubling and could be a challenge to come? But very similar to what you mentioned, you know, we recommend a couple different strategies or things to think about institutions, regularly integrating flashpoints into your already created institution risk register, and then leverage, again, that online risk, monitoring strategies to promote early action, creating these mechanisms to consistently elevate and discuss, potential flashpoints.

0:16:10.4 AS: So are you bringing it to the cabinet meeting? And I'm having the communications director or those that are leading the communications office to say, here's what we're hearing, here's what might be coming about and what we should be paying attention to. And if there's any themes associated with that. Next, to develop a dedicated team, campus team to structure and coordinate the campus response, here at EAB we have a lot of different models and examples of who should make up that team. And then just set clear expectations on when and how to respond to flashpoints with the advice of those who do, like you, who do this work daily and are experts at this certainly, of course. So there's several things to think about that we recommend to our partners in regards to how to respond, when to respond, and what that should look like.

0:17:09.3 SS: Yeah, I love the consistency message. I mean, it'd be easy to say, great, we did an issues management plan, and now it's on the shelf, and then if you never look at it again, it's not really that helpful. So I know that one of the things we do as a firm is look at some of the key audiences when we develop a plan with some of our partner organizations. So, I'd love to hear from you about the different target audiences that a college or university might have to be thinking through during a crisis like that, and maybe any calls of schools that already have something really solid in place.

0:17:42.0 AS: Yeah, absolutely. So target audiences to think about, and we'll consider them maybe stakeholders as well, of course, your students, faculty, staff quite naturally, but also your alumni. Who are the neighboring communities around your institution that might be impacted by a particular incident? Think about your donors. Is there a cause or challenge that is happening that's igniting some sort of activism that your donor supports or does not support? And you need to think about their involvement in that response as well. Of course, parents, and then who the incident impacts directly. So could it be maybe people of color, people with disabilities? Are our international students somehow affected one way or another? So there's certainly lots of entities to consider.

0:18:38.8 AS: But I will say as far as response is concerned, in the University of Maine system they have this spotlight policy framework that really guides chancellors and presidents and simplifies the decision making on when they should be and who should be making these institutional statements. So it's pretty neat in the way that, they set it up just like a stoplight, a green zone, yellow zone, red zone. And the green zone is, what are those things that are mission critical that directly impact the institution and the community? That means we need to go after that. So that might be employee and student health and safety or institution finances. We know that the chancellor president can really issue a statement in that situation. And then where we go kind of slow, and the yellow zone university of Maine would refer to as mission indirect.

0:19:33.9 AS: So it might not directly impact the mission of the institution, but immigration policies and labor standards might impact the families of those, or students who are students from different countries, international students, of course. So depending on time permitting, chancellors and presidents should consult with maybe a rapid advisory committee on how to respond. And then lastly here, the red zone, those things that are unrelated to the mission, so unrelated to the missions of the institution or their financial stability. So that could be political events or federal policies. And then we want our chancellors and presidents to kind of avoid those issues at all costs, if we don't need to necessarily address those. So I think University of Maine really has a perfect best practice of how to respond directly and when to do so.

0:20:27.0 SS: Very cool. Thanks for that.

0:20:29.4 AS: Yeah. Excellent. So, one of the things that I'm wondering is if a school has a good protocol in place, how do they know when and how to use it? You know, with all that we've discussed, it does feel like institutions and their leaders are being called on more often to comment publicly on issues of national importance. So when should a college or university consider commenting on a wider societal issue?

0:21:00.7 SS: Well, I think you gave quite the example at the University of Maine, right? So, having those protocols in place is really the ticket. So if an issue's happening outside of the university's control, it's obviously a little bit stickier to know if they should comment or not. And the reality is that Gen Z expects companies, brands, institutions to be commenting and responding to sort of wider societal issues. But the reality is that you also need to stop and think about, is that within your role in the situation?

0:21:34.0 SS: So can you impact change clearly commenting directly on issues like student health and safety on a campus, or anything that aligns with your values and missions might be something you wanna comment, but definitely in that space about student health and safety. But perhaps maybe something about the way the local community is responding to something might be mission indirect, I think is the words you use. So, I think it's understanding what's in your control, as the university, what aligns with your values, and having that framework in place so that actually, it's not really a... The decisions aren't willy-nilly. It's not like we comment here today and we don't comment here tomorrow.

0:22:17.7 AS: Sure.

0:22:18.3 SS: I mean, consistency is super key. You wanna show up, in a way that meets your values and is aligned with your mission and frankly, you don't wanna be sort of commenting in one space one day and another space another day. 'Cause then that's confusing to the people that are expecting to hear from you. So, I think you did a good job explaining protocols and certainly talking about where and when a university might wanna comment. Yeah.

0:22:45.3 AS: Excellent. Excellent. Well, kind of a closing question here together. I'm gonna put two together here. And you know, we hear all the things to do, what we should do, in our conversation today. But what are some of the common mistakes that you see that leaders make during a crisis, and what should they do instead? And then if you want to just kind of share what are your top pieces of advice for university leaders in terms of how they should prepare for a PR crisis?

0:23:18.1 SS: Yeah, for sure. So, I mean, the biggest mistake that I've seen is people trying to cover things up, right? So, there is not a space in which you can bury things under the rug, nor should you. It's important to be honest about what you do and don't know about a situation. And sometimes negative things are gonna happen. That's just the reality. You know, so to pretend like it's all gonna be perfect is a bit naive but... Especially in today's world, people are gonna be much more upset about an attempt to cover things up or push things under the rug. So that would be a huge mistake, is just bearing your head in the sand and pretending it's gonna go away. That would be one. And I think the second thing is, aligned with that, but not communicating anything at all. Just assuming that people know that, yeah, okay, we know there's a safety issue on campus, or there was a protest and sort of saying, that's not for us to comment on. Well, if it's on your campus, it probably is.

0:24:27.3 SS: So I think they should be thinking about it in that way. So certainly don't try to cover things up, get the facts out and make a plan if it's truly mission critical, if it's reflective of something that needs to happen on campus, like creating new diversity protocols or things like that, need to name those things and take action around them. And I think actually EAB has worked with clients as well to sort of say, not only you say that first thing, but there needs to be follow up behind that message. It can't just be a one and done sort of situation. So, true change does take time and it needs that consistency along the way. So those would definitely be the mistakes. And then as far as top takeaways, I know we just kind of scratched the surface, so. But some of the biggest takeaways are plan ahead. So, it's easy to pretend or wish that things were not gonna go wrong.

0:25:27.8 SS: Don't we all? But, you know, pushing off this planning, this risk mitigation piece, and perhaps not thinking about the communications aspects, would be a problem. So really don't get caught off guard, when you do that risk assessment on the financial side, have the communications team or some element of that group in the mix so that you're thinking through how you would communicate if these risks come to life as well. So plan ahead and then part of that, know who's making the decision. So is it a group of people? Do you have to reach a consensus? Is a single person that says we're moving in this direction? That is particularly important in a situation in which there's reputational risk or certainly threats to health and safety. So you need to make sure that that's clear before the crisis hits. So, you can do that.

0:26:24.3 SS: And then finally, staying aligned to your mission when crafting responses, when making those strategic decisions about how you respond. So if you're a university that values diversity, equity, and inclusion, make sure that that's at the forefront of your responses. If you're dealing with a diversity issue on campus, if you believe in maintaining academic freedom for instance, maybe that's the way you respond to something. So, certainly just making sure the university values are part and parcel of your response, as you're planning through these things and taking care on your campus. So I think there's lots to learn on this front. There are many situations and flashpoints that are gonna continue happening on our college campuses. And I think university leaders would be wise to stop and think about it before they become true crises.

0:27:23.3 AS: Excellent. Excellent. Well, thank you so much, Stacy. I know here at EAB I can speak for myself. I certainly work with many institutions in preparing for addressing these campus climate flashpoints. And just as you said earlier and just a few moments ago, especially scenario planning, when can we take the moment and be proactive and think of a typical situation that we could be positioned in and let's sort of practice what that response would be. And I lead a lot of those scenarios and would be happy to continue to do so with any of our partners, certainly who are looking for that support. So I hope I'm not in the position myself to have to respond to these crises and issues, but I know there are people like you that could certainly be in our corner to support us. So thank you so much for joining us today on Office Hours with EAB.

0:28:17.7 SS: Excellent. That was a blast. Thanks for having me.


0:28:27.8 S1: Thank you for listening. Please join us next week when our guests dig into the customer relationship management technology and best practices you should be using to convert more inquiries into applicants and more applicants into successful students. Until then, thank you for your time.


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