Crisis management: handling, supervising, controlling an emotionally stressful event, a traumatic change in a person’s life, or an unstable condition; the ability to effectively respond to an unstable person or condition (e.g., dealing with a student considering suicide).
These two words, when put together, can evoke a wide range of feelings among professionals, parents, students, and the community. Parents of college students ask questions during orientation regarding how the college responds to “emergencies.” They are often the recipients of middle-of-the-night phone calls from professional staff involved in “a situation.” Students frequently find themselves in the middle of “an incident.” The community may be greatly impacted by “an event.” No matter what you call it or how you slice it, residence life professional staff members are always involved in “crisis management.”
The situations requiring crisis management vary from institution to institution. A small, containable smoking-mattress incident may be an emergency at one school, while at another, it would simply rate an Incident Report being filed. Hate-filled graffiti may warrant a crisis management team to convene, or the team may gather only after repeated instances of hate crimes.
There are, of course, some universal situations that will involve some sort of crisis management: attempted or completed suicide, death of a student (e.g., accidental drowning, car accident, medical-related, etc.), building fire, stranger rape on campus, to name just a few. Each campus will have its’ own way of managing any given crisis. However, there are some commonalities that one should consider when faced with managing a crisis.
General goals for managing a crisis should include a demonstration of support and concern for the students: those directly involved in the situation as well as the rest of the student community. Especially on small campuses, word gets around quickly. It is important for administrators to be supportive of the students during these difficult times.
There will be situations when confidentiality will be of great concern. Administrators will have to take steps to protect the anonymity of students. Be extra careful about discussing situations outside of a closed office. Do not share names with others unless they have a bona fide “need to know” (rather than simply being curious). It may mean that the administrator needs to avoid certain places on campus (e.g., the dining hall where faculty or staff may approach and ask about the situation) for the first few days following an incident. If asked about the situation, professional staff need to be assertive and state that they are unable to discuss the incident. It may feel uncomfortable to say that to a faculty member or another staff member, but it may very well be necessary.
Another goal during a crisis is to try to restore normal operations as soon as possible. One of the points secondary and middle school officials have been making during the rash of school shootings in the last few years is the importance of getting the surviving students (faculty and staff) back to school as soon as possible. Students need to feel that they are back in control of their lives. By limiting the disruption of their normal routines, administrators can help students start the healing process. At the same time, be sensitive to student needs. Provide debriefings for students, faculty, and staff who may be affected by the crisis as soon as it is appropriate.
Once a crisis hits a campus, it is important to identify “internal audiences.” Who should be contacted, how, and when? Typically, students, faculty, and staff are notified. Other people who may be contacted, depending on the situation include parents, trustees, state officials, and federal agencies. A timeline should be developed to determine when these people will be contacted and by what means.
Roles should be assigned for handling the multitude of work that needs to be done during and after any crisis. Each person on the crisis management team should be responsible for certain tasks. Maintain a file (or notebook) on everything that is done during and after the situation is resolved to be used the next time a crisis happens. Delegate when possible.
It is recommended that the institution establish a communication command center. Drafts of letters should be prepared and forwarded to the command center. The timely release of information needs to be carefully coordinated. It is wise to use multiple methods of communication, including in-person meetings, phone calls, standard personal letters, e-mail, world wide web, posting flyers, and articles in local newspapers. Key to managing the communications is to get accurate information, notify college officers quickly, and keep them informed. Those involved in managing the crisis should meet to decide how and when to communicate with the internal and external audiences. When considering external communications, be sure to take into account that the audience may consist of the media, trustee members, donors, prospective students and families, and politicians.
When trying to get accurate information, it is important to first speak directly with central figures whenever possible (those who were directly involved and all witnesses). Collect “baseline” information early. Baseline information consists of detailed interviews from everyone involved to include the who, what, where, why, when, and how of the incident. It is helpful to develop clear methods for information gathering. To do that, create a written list of questions to be asked of all the people directly involved and the witnesses before interviewing them. It is also important to provide regular updates to the college and general community.
College officers (president, vice presidents, deans of students, etc.) should be contacted immediately. They should convene a meeting to develop the message that is to be disseminated and a communications plan. The officers need to assess the magnitude of the crisis (will this affect only the college community or local community, or will it turn into a national or international news story?). After the message is developed, everyone involved in managing the crisis needs to know what the message and goals are and stick to them.
In many cases, news media will be involved in reporting the crisis. People assigned to managing the crisis must understand the role of the media. The mission of the media is to tell the story. Work with them, not against them. The institution’s public relations office should work directly with the media. It is a good idea to have one institutional spokesperson and to set aside a time and place for daily briefings and or press conferences. Give the media clear, accurate, written information. This will help keep the message consistent and can prevent the media from creating problems on campus. The person chosen to speak for the institution should be careful about speaking “off the record” or giving background information. Some institutions, especially public ones, may find that the media has “descended” throughout the campus. If residences are not normally locked 24/7, consider locking them before the media arrives, to prevent reporters from trying to gain entry into student living areas and creating a disturbance. However, be cautious: you do not want to create a fortress atmosphere if you do not currently have buildings locked 24/7. Be aware that while some students may want their “15 minutes of fame” by getting interviewed by print or TV media, others will not want the disruption. Try to locate students who are willing to speak with the media and set up the interviews away from the residences. Try to brief the students ahead of time. Also, do not forget that in some cases, remote feed trucks may create traffic and parking problems.
Use your resources wisely. There may be instances when using the local police agencies are not enough. Consider using the FBI, the governor’s office, the state’s attorney general’s office, congressional members, and members of the institution’s board of trustees, who tend to be well-connected. Utilize local counseling agencies to provide additional support for students, faculty, and staff. However, be very careful to evaluate all offers of help. Following a crisis, it is not unusual for offers to help to come pouring in. Private citizens, private counseling agencies, government victim/witness experts, and crisis management groups may extend offers. Use familiar contacts first. Be aware of the impact that using outside agencies may have on internal staff. For example, counseling center staff may view the acceptance of assistance from an off-campus counseling agency as “stepping on their toes.”
The president of the institution plays a special role during any major crisis. The president first and foremost has to demonstrate support and concern for the students and protect the anonymity of students, if appropriate. The president also needs to cooperate with outside officials, provide support for programs (e.g., the study abroad program if the incident occurred during a study abroad trip), and work to restore normal operations to the campus as soon as possible.
Residence life staff can be educational even during a crisis. Provide information to student staff on dealing with grief, how people can be supportive during a crisis, common responses to traumatic events, stages of recovery for survivors of rape, etc. Not only will this information be useful for staff as they work with students, it will also help them start their own healing process.
Additional tips for managing a crisis:
• Demonstrate support/concern for the students first! People involved in a crisis need an open, reliable, helpful channel to provide and receive information until the crisis has passed. Find out of those involved: how are you (and the others) doing? What do you need me to understand about the situation? What do you want me to communicate to others?
• Understand the culture of your campus. Know the students and the faculty.
• Manage the situation. If you receive a crisis call, make assignments. Do not pass the initial crisis coordination to others until the situation stabilizes, allowing a change in leadership.
• Convene a risk team/task force to review what happened, how the incident was handled, and make recommendations on how to avoid a similar incident and what to do differently in the future.
• Obtain legal advice early.
• Consider hiring media consultants. Professional advice from a consultant is well worth the time and money. Have a public relations strategy session.
• Consider budget implications. (Medical, travel, insurance, meals, lodging, incidentals).
• Identify ahead of time those resources that will be helpful during a crisis (for example: special skills/knowledge/jobs of parents and Board of Trustee members, assistance that can be provided by state and federal agencies, public officials, local agencies). Don’t overlook available resources in your own backyard. Cultivate partnerships with service providers. Regularly review your list of campus, local community, and state resources.
• Decide whether or not to follow the wishes of those involved in the incident or to follow the admonishments of helping professionals.
• Advocate the need for counseling services early during the crisis. Frequently offer support services (counseling, etc.), to those involved in the incident in the months that follow.
• Put parents in touch with counseling support personnel workers as soon as possible.
• Use your Public Safety office (campus police, etc.), as a point of contact for information.
• Communicate accurate information as often as you can to key constituencies (students, parents, faculty, staff, alumni, trustees, public officials). If you have communicated the ethos of your campus beforehand, this will help to clarify and authenticate your messages during a crisis.
• Private institutions: make sure the media know in advance that they should not go into student living areas.
• Use your institution’s website to get out information.
• Talk to other institutional officers about their experiences in a crisis.
• Use release forms for all trips.
• If you hear about a crisis at a colleague’s institution, send a short e-mail message or leave a short phone message of support. Do not expect to get a reply during the crisis. However, the messages of support are incredibly helpful to get while managing a crisis.
• Touch base with those directly involved in the incident six months after the incident. Also be aware that the anniversary of an incident may be traumatic for some people.
• Remember to send out thank-you letters to people who provided services (for example, airport personnel, catering staff, on-campus staff, etc.), and send a copy of the letter to each person’s supervisor.
• Maintain well-organized files.
• Remember: any statements that are made by College members can be used against the College in the event of a lawsuit. Legal counsel should review any communication with students and parents before it is sent out. Additionally, any written communication among College officers about the incident should be in the form of a memo to the legal counsel with the notation that it is a confidential attorney-client communication.
Study Abroad considerations:
• Leave lists of participants, copies of trip itineraries, and emergency contact information with the Public Safety Office and Dean of Student Affairs office.
• Make sure trip organizers know whom to contact at the college in case of emergency.
• Develop procedures to review and approve study abroad experiences.
• Inform study abroad participants in advance about possible dangers. As an added measure, develop an indemnification form, waiver, or release for program participants. Make sure the college keeps the original signed release from each participant.
Note: You should consider sharing these tips with others at your institution. It is better to plan for crises well in advance, than to be caught off-guard and suddenly find yourself having to deal with a very difficult situation.
While it is impossible to prepare for any and all crises in advance, developing written protocols, guidelines, procedures can be helpful for a wide variety of incidents. Give this information to people who may be called upon to assist during a crisis: residence life and counseling center staff, media relations, public safety, senior administrators/officers of the institution. Keep people informed before, during, and after a situation occurs. Managing a crisis, no matter how big or small it is, can be time consuming and stressful. However, it can also be a positive professional development opportunity that allows the administrator to be actively involved in the lives of the students while showing genuine concern and support for them. Residence life staff can make a difference!
“Do more than exist – live
Do more than touch – feel
Do more than look – observe
Do more than read – absorb
Do more than hear – listen
Do more than listen – understand”
John H. Rhoades, public speaker
Submitted by Joanne Goldwater, Assistant Dean for Residential Life, St. Mary’s College of Maryland