JJ Townsend


Crisis Communication Plan

Originally published on Ole Miss Crisis Management by JJ Townsend

It seems to me that most organizations do not see themselves as prone to crises.  Leaders may consider an unfortunate event as a crisis only if it’s something like what we see in the headlines: a hurricane or tornado, the collapse of the financial industry, or a major shooting.  When such a dramatic event does occur, they tend to take the “it won’t happen to us” attitude.  It may not happen in a company or industry prone to crises, such as oil and gas or automobile; schools and universities might experience it, too.

As a Public Relations Director for Ole Miss, I would construct a crisis plan foundation that could be used as a functional 5-part template meant to be adjusted depending on the situation. The five sections of the template would include the following: purpose, objectives, procedures, response, and education/plan maintenance.

First, the communication plan outlines the roles, responsibilities and protocols that will guide the university in promptly sharing information with all of Ole Miss’ audiences during an emergency or crisis. This section would outline the core Crisis Action Team members.  

Our guiding principle (objectives of the plan) will be to communicate facts as quickly as possible, updating information regularly as circumstances change, to ensure the safety of the Ole Miss community and the continued operation of essential services. The efforts to be simultaneously accurate and quick may mean that some communications are incomplete. The trade-off is worth accepting knowing that how we communicate in a crisis will affect public perceptions of the university.  The plan will recognize that in a crisis, people will expect us to have more information than we actually have. That makes it imperative to speak with accuracy about what we know and not to speculate about details we do not know.  Overall, the goal is to be open, accountable and accessible to all audiences, while also being mindful of legal and privacy concerns.

    The procedure portion of the plan would be an important section for university administrators to understand. The Crisis Action Team would convene when an appointed emergency coordinator declares a Category 5 (most severe risk). This section would also detail who has authority to act immediately until a broader decision can be made about how the university should proceed. It would also detail the strategic location of the Crisis Action Team headquarters.

    Moreover, the response section will outline the immediate and secondary responses, approvals of outgoing information, and staffing. For immediate response, the team will carry out tasks like sending RebALERT email and text messages, activate sirens, sending media alerts, and convening the crisis teams. The secondary response carried out by the team: designate a secretary who can maintain meeting notes, to-do lists, and files;  review facts that can and cannot be shared with the public; develop key messages; determine spokesperson; assign responsibilities to communications/crisis action team; update crisis website; assign communicators; develop communications for the chancellor; open a media center to allow reporters open access; assign someone to monitor online and media coverage; determine how we should report for internal audiences (town hall, vigil, protest); evaluate how to help recover from crisis; and within 10 days assess how the plan functioned.

    The final section addresses the education and training regarding the awareness and preparedness of crisis situations. The plan will outline how often the university conduct tests for the communication tools like RebALERT, sirens, website, and emergency drills. As part of this process, the crisis team will schedule media training sessions for senior administrators and key team members. This section will also detail the training sessions to be held to prevent situations cultural sensitivity, diversity, ethical, and combat/self-defense training for faculty and students.

In today's hyper-connected world, news and information travels in real time. Websites, blogs and social media sites are where most people will turn to get the latest information. When a crisis hits, the university simply will not have time to call in the webmaster and IT guy to put a special website together, which could take days or even weeks. A dark site positions the university as the primary source of information about the crisis. It shows that the university is in control and taking responsibility, which generates trust and goodwill. It also becomes a central hub of information for the news media and helps squelch rumors and misinformation. Currently, Ole Miss does not have an official dark or crisis website where faculty and students can visit daily to learn more about emergency and crisis plans and updates. As a chief PR guy, my top priority would be to partner with the IT Department to find a way to leverage innovative technologies that could keep Ole Miss safe and potentially create a model other universities could adopt. I would establishing a site under the URL RebAlert.com that would serve as a crisis hub of data, information, updates, and facts accessible year-round. Simply, RebAlert.com would be a one-stop shop for all things emergency/crisis.  As time and experimenting develop, the site could have the following features that would protect the university’s reputation and students: interactive videos using geo-technology showing evacuation plans and safe spots; live streaming of press conferences, vigils, protests; live camera footage of various campus locations similar to this; a Twitter hashtag ticker/feed wall to display what the Ole Miss community are saying about the current crisis (#OleMissTornado #OleMissGunman #OleMissJoeJones); collection of cases on how previous situations were handled by the Crisis Action Team; contact information of Ole Miss crisis leadership.

To illustrate the practical implementation of this plan, imagine a scenario where a male student, Joe Jones, has been brutally beaten and is in the hospital in a coma. When his body was discovered, there was a letter with it that says, “We don’t want no gay folks at Ole Miss.” In addition, someone has posted flyers around campus saying the same thing and warning gay students: Look what happened to Joe Jones. It could happen to you. — This is an example of a crisis that may not have reached the dramatic proportions of an occurrence like the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, or the various traumatic shootings occurrences that tragically resulted in the loss of lives. But it can have a significant impact on the ‘business’ of the university, the personal livelihoods, and the image of the institution that could have long-lasting negative effects. The following paragraphs outline how I would handle this intentional violent crisis situation.

First and foremost, I would notify the family of the victim and reassure them that the Ole Miss community is there to support them and that I will personally provide as much information about the situation to them as quickly as possibly. I’d also reassure the family that the university and Oxford law enforcement will go to great lengths to identify and punish the assailant(s).

My next step would be to identify and place several Ole Miss LGBTQ opinion leaders on the Crisis Action Team to ensure that we’re implementing a one clear voice with the appropriate messaging, tone, and strategies from the beginning. Having one spokesperson is not practical, but speaking with one voice is.  Establishing a chain of command, having a coordinated communication effort, and making trained communicators available will help shape the situation. Prominent leaders of the LGBTQ community will allow the university to deliver believable communicators speaking through trusted channels of communication which will drive out rumors. Lastly, this approach would prevent or reduce competing messages circulating in the media. Often with hate crimes, journalists use split screens to show the polarization of the opposing activists groups and other external sources. If we are building strong partnerships with these groups even before the crime take place, it shows that the university is not only committed to resolving the issue but it’s ready to address viable solutions to the overarching LGBTQ cultural/diversity problems in our community and society.

In contrast, I would find ways to break down the barriers and empower the student body to voice their concerns and show the world that Ole Miss is truly a welcoming environment.  By giving students a platform in the form of a community vigil, peaceful walk, or a public place to drop off cards/flowers to Joe would truly change the perception of the crisis if it’s live streamed and broadcast to the world on RebAlert.com. The site will also have a crowdfunding section for supporters to make a donation to cover any medical expenses for the family on RebAlert.com.

Next, the Crisis Action Team’s key communications to internal and external publics would be about the programs and initiatives related to inclusivity the university has already implemented prior to the incident — Center for Inclusion and Cross Cultural Engagement, Diversity Week, LGBTQ Alumni & Friends Council, to name a few — but reiterate there’s more to be done and the university’s administration is finding additional avenues to improve. As mentioned in the lecture, the Chinese symbol for “crisis” means danger and opportunity. The Crisis Action Team will recognize that how we solve the issue could create opportunity for a better future.   

One great truth about public relations is that communication must follow performance.  My Crisis Action Team would initiate a follow-up with the media and the public to discuss what the university learned from the situation and what we’ve done to improve. This shows that there is ongoing efforts being made even when media attention disappears. This engagement will detail how the assailant(s) was dealt with and what actions we have taken post-incident. Too many times, companies and organizations that handle crisis diligently and with compassion never follow-up with the public about how they’re still taking the incident seriously and are making leaps to improve. For example, last year the Ole Miss Athletics Department initially handled the allegations that members of the football team used anti-gay slurs and disruptive manner during The Laramie Project. Coach Freeze had this response via Twitter:


The university formed an investigation committee but, to many, the process was opaque and actions taken had very little teeth. The Athletics Department could have gained the confidence of many if they showed more compassion, were transparent, and followed up with the public about the punishment and training in the athletic programs henceforth.   

As a final point, this comprehensive crisis plan establishes an integrated voice, partners with opinion leaders, shows compassion, reassures the victim’s family, creates a transparent and open response, and finally creates a platform for students to generate the university’s perception. As the university sees individuals with diverse backgrounds, their experiences make inroads in various corners of the university which will force PR professionals to reflect and adapt tactics and crisis plans. My plan capitalizes on this diversity through shared value partnerships and uses the power of technology to tell the story.

JJ TownsendComment