Change happens all the time — most of it gradually, allowing universities time to prepare and adapt. For example, new learning technologies, changing student needs, and government policies that impact funding and course content.
But sometimes the situation can change in an instant due to natural disasters, political unrest, and (of course) public health emergencies. For example, universities in Auckland were recently dealing with significant flooding, and major earthquakes and tsunamis occur regularly throughout the APAC region.
Universities must prepare for these crises in advance so that they can respond appropriately in the moment. A solid crisis communications plan can help you get the right message out at the right time in order to promote calm, keep your students safe, and maintain your reputation as a trusted source of information.
Thanks to global connectedness and increasing instability around the world, getting student communication right during a crisis is more important than ever.
Getting ready to review your university’s crisis communication strategy? We’ve got some tips to help you.
1. Getting a ‘temperature check’
One study on higher education institution responses to COVID-19 showed that 49% of respondents believed their institutions lacked a permanent or dedicated emergency management office. And 41% said they lacked a general business continuity plan for an emergency. Meanwhile, upon examining universities that did have business continuity plans, 33% did not cover pandemic risk management or biological hazards.
Of course, this isn’t exactly the same as a crisis communication plan but it does illustrate that many institutions fail to properly plan ahead and account for all likely scenarios. So, use this opportunity to look at your resources and systems to see what gaps you might need to fill.
2. Plan for likely scenarios
You can’t anticipate every possible crisis, but it’s a good idea to prepare a student communications plan for some of the most likely scenarios that could impact your institution. For example:
- Weather events and natural disasters
- Cybersecurity breaches
- Injuries to staff or students
- A chemical spill/release that endangers your community
- A nearby bus, train, or plane crash
- A fire on-campus or nearby
- Public health crises
- Localised disease or illness
- Transport disruptions
- Major disruptions to the economy
- Leadership crisis
This can allow you to prepare some generic student communications that you can adapt as needed so that you can update your students as quickly as possible.
3. Assign roles and responsibilites
It’s important to identify and assign individual roles to people and teams in the event of a crisis. Important roles may include:
- Facility Heads or Senior Management Representatives
- Head of Communications/PR
- Crisis Comms Team
Defining these roles will ensure you know who is responsible for what ahead of time so that you can quickly communicate with your students.
4. Identify stakeholder groups
Consider who your stakeholders are — and how you might need to adapt your crisis communication to meet their needs and expectations. For instance, your students are stakeholders, but within that, you could divide them into various groups based on:
- Domestic vs international vs remote
- Living on-campus or off-campus
- Undergraduates vs postgraduates
- Campus or facility
- Degree or discipline
- Plus much more
And of course, although we’re mainly focusing on student communication here, it’s important to consider other stakeholders you may need to communicate with during a crisis, including university staff, surrounding residents and businesses, industry partners, government representatives, and relatives of students.
By identifying these stakeholders and using your communication tools (like your CRM) to prepare segmented lists in advance, you can quickly reach relevant groups or share tailored messages in the event of a crisis.
5. Update your key messages
Do you have a list of key messages that you can quickly use and adapt in a crisis? As a general guide, you could structure your list around the following themes:
|Our team is on call 24/7 during this time so you can count on us for a fast response to any questions.
Forecasts suggest the situation is likely to improve within 12 hours.
Emphasise that safety is your number one priority.
|Our first priority is ensuring that all our staff and students are safe. We’re working to ensure everyone is accounted for and then we’ll conduct a safety assessment before returning to campus.
If you are on campus, please seek shelter. If you are not on campus, please remain in a safe location.
|You can trust our information
Share your information sources.
|We’re working closely with the weather bureau to understand the situation.
We’re sharing this information directly from our on-the-ground teams.
Say who is impacted — locations, classes, times.
|What we do know about this event is that it impacts only the 657 students who live on-campus.
Students and staff with classes in Building 22 this week will be impacted — for now, all other classes will remain as normal.
With each update, share when the next update is expected.
|We’ll share our next update at 6pm.
Check back in tomorrow morning for our next scheduled update.
|What you should do
Provide guidance on what people need to do in order to remain safe or protect themselves.
|Continue with classes as usual until further notice.
Stay at home for the remainder of this week while the situation is unfolding.
|What you can do
Taking action can help people feel in control. Promote opportunities to help.
|If you’d like to help with the relief efforts, sign up at <www.address.com>.
Make sure you have the right supplies ready to continue studying at home for the next week, if needed.
Look out for your neighbours and check in with your friends to see how you can offer support.
Acknowledge any victims, including various groups that may be negatively impacted.
|We would like to acknowledge the difficulty many of our students and staff are facing — particularly international students. If you need extra support, please reach out.
We just want to take a moment to acknowledge those that have been personally impacted by this event.
6. Create fact sheets
Fact sheets are a useful communication tool during a crisis, as they provide a clear list of what you know about the situation to reassure students and counteract potential misinformation. Consider creating a fact sheet template that’s ready to fill out and publish when you need it.
7. Create communication guidelines
As part of your crisis communication plan, create some guidelines to help your team prepare materials and respond in the moment. This could define things like:
- Languages and style rules
- Tone of voice — empathetic, honest, helpful
- What communication channels to use
- How to handle social media mentions
- Acceptable response timeframes
This will help your team respond consistently and strategically — even if multiple people are responsible for handling your student communications.
8. Integrate your SMS and CMS
With an integrated student management system (SMS) and customer relationship manager (CRM), it's much easier to communicate with students in a crisis. You'll be able to see who is enrolled at what campus so that you can target them with the comms they need, when they need it.
Fortunately, Tribal's student management system (ebs/SITS) and student marketing & recruitment system are designed for seamless integration.
9. Prepare your student support channels
A study found that natural disasters may reduce university students' likelihood of on-time graduation and increase the likelihood of dropouts.
To mitigate the impact of a crisis on student wellbeing and engagement, you may need to offer more support. Consider what resources and messages you might share during or following a crisis — and how you would best connect students with the appropriate support.
Plus, with the recent rise in mental health issues within APAC higher education, it might be worth bolstering your support resources and integrating student wellbeing and support into your CRM, regardless of future crises your student population may face.
10. Enable individual case management
Sometimes it’ll be more appropriate to manage and respond to a crisis situation on an individual level. For example, in the early stages or a crisis (or where it doesn’t have broad impacts), it could make sense to reach out to the individuals most likely to be impacted. This means you can give these students special attention, manage complex issues delicately, and provide a faster response — all without unnecessarily involving other stakeholders.
If your student management system is integrated with Tribal’s Student Support & Wellbeing solution, you can take advantage of its individual case management features, making it easy to focus on specific cases. Plus, this integration means that you can work more closely with your student support team, with easy access to recorded student interactions and data.
11. Go omnichannel
When communicating with students, an omnichannel approach can help you reach more people, more quickly — especially when you have a diverse student population with different preferred communication channels.
Consider how you can reach students via email, learning platforms, student apps, text messages, popular social media channels, campus announcements, noticeboards, and more.
For example, following a massive 7.1 magnitude earthquake in 2010, the University of Canterbury in New Zealand had an immediate response that was carefully coordinated, and included a web-based environment and Facebook page that became key information sources for several months. These platforms make sense based on study findings that 33% 18-21 year olds (a fairly typical age for undergraduate students) would rely on social media for initial information in a large-scale crisis event. Meanwhile, a further 33% would look to new outlets as a key information source.
Learn more about why social media is important to higher education.
An omnichannel approach can also support information sharing. During a crisis, it’s natural for students to want to discuss the situation with their peers and share information with one another. One way you can enable and manage this information sharing is through a collaborative app like Engage.
Engage has many possible use cases, but in a crisis situation, it could serve as a private social network for safe, secure communication between students, staff, and departments. And unlike social media, Engage provides a controlled environment for student communications that can be monitored and measured — and can integrate with other student information systems.
12. Consider accessibility and inclusivity
Using multiple content formats isn’t just good for engagement, but also important for accessibility. Consider using a mixture of text-based content, images, audio, and video to ensure that all students can access and understand your communication.
Other considerations for accessible, inclusive communications include:
- Using larger fonts
- Using clear, easy-to-read language
- Using image descriptions and video captions
- Providing translations so students can access content in their own language
- Accounting for cultural differences
13. Train your crisis team
No matter how good your systems and crisis communications plans are, they’re only as good as your team’s training. Make sure that everyone involved in your crisis communication response knows where to find the plan and how to use the software — especially your student communication tools.
If you’re using Tribal’s products, use our reference materials and how-to guides to refresh your team on how everything works. And you can always reach out to our Customer Success team with specific questions about how to get the most out of your software.
14. Run a test
A survey of higher education providers found that although nearly all respondents had written crisis plans and crisis management teams, only 57% had tested their plans. So, if you haven’t recently tested your plan, schedule a mock crisis scenario and see how your plan performs. This is a great opportunity to fix problems and optimise your response times — without any real risk to your students, staff, and reputation.
15. Review and evaluate
If you’ve experienced a crisis recently, evaluate how your student communication went! You could measure your success based on student feedback (surveys or comments), analytics (opens, clicks, and visits), reputation, and whether students acted upon the advice and information you shared. Use your learnings to inform your crisis response and communication in future.
Plus, your crisis communication strategy should be a living, breathing document that evolves over time. So, regularly review and update your strategy to keep it fresh.
In our next piece, we talk more about student communication and how an integrated student management system and CRM can make all the difference.
In the meantime, if you’d like to learn more, check out these articles:
- University of Waikato uses Tribal’s Student Marketing & Recruitment Solution
- Student Apps the Communication Revolution in Education
- What Students in APAC Really Think About Universities in 2022
- Why You Need a Student recruitment CRM in Higher Education