Higher Education

Managing the Message in the Social Media Age

When crises happen on college campuses, university executives should make their social media strategy a central part of the solution.


When crises hit college and university campuses, online dialogue can be unpredictable. At the 2020 National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO) annual meeting, James Lock, III, J.P. Morgan Managing Director and Higher Education Industry Executive, moderated a panel titled, “Impact Events and Managing the Message in the Social Media Age,” with top executives at the University of Notre Dame, University of Virginia and California Lutheran University on issues ranging from COVID-19 to campus violence. Below are the three key takeaways from the discussion:

1. Don’t sacrifice reputation for speed

In a crisis, people want information fast—but immediacy shouldn’t risk accuracy or the school’s reputation. Emergencies require leadership to communicate swiftly and effectively, but not at the risk of the school’s standing.

Part of that effort requires social media teams trained in delivering messaging in a voice that reflects the core values and mission of the organization in any situation.

During recent crises that included community violence and wildfires near campus, Matthew Ward, vice president for enrollment management at Cal Lutheran, said schools should “know (their) audience—students, parents, staff—and think about them first” without falling into the “trap” of thinking about the media first.

2. Allow your social media team to work alongside key decision makers in a crisis

In an emergency, leaders and communicators need to be working in tandem so all crisis management functions and accurate, on-point communications happen seamlessly.

At the University of Notre Dame, online outcry during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic required quick and meaningful message coordination between communications staff and top administrators.

Act early and decisively based on early information from social media outlets.

Andy Fuller, Director of Strategic Content, University of Notre Dame

3. Continually update response plans

Plans should be tweaked over time, resetting objectives and leadership roles that reflect changing needs and institutional structure.

It’s important not to forget the human element in crisis planning. People often freeze in emergencies—even if their responsibilities are purely administrative. Lines of emergency command and communication should be clear and periodically reinforced with training.  

Universities should share a cohesive experience in communicating a crisis aided by close cooperation between social media staff and top leadership on messaging. In short, it’s all about voice. As Notre Dame’s Fuller noted, “We are one university…our audience doesn’t care about position or department.”

Adds Cal Lutheran’s Ward, “Tap into your core values and mission and speak from that voice. Risk can be managed and mitigated by connecting authentically.”

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