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Crisis Communication at the University of Louisville

Policies and Procedures

Introduction

The way the University of Louisville communicates in a crisis has a lasting impact on its reputation. As a publicly assisted institution, U of L is obliged to keep the public informed of its activities. Invariably, the news media act as powerful agents in this process.

How well the university gets its message across to the public depends to a great extent on what is reported in the news. This is especially true in crises, when people rely primarily on the information they receive from newspapers, television and radio to form their opinions.

For purposes of this plan, a crisis is defined as:

A significant disturbance in the university's activities which results in extensive news coverage and public scrutiny, and which has the potential to cause long-term public relations damage.

The actions U of L takes in crises, and how it interacts with the news media during these periods of intense public scrutiny, can critically shape the way it is perceived, which in turn can affect the degree of support it receives.

This plan, a supplement to U of L's existing Public Information Policy, addresses crisis communication on two levels by offering:

  • Policies aimed at gaining control of reputation problems before they become public relations crises.
  • Standard procedures for limiting damage in crises that cannot be avoided.

A Crisis Action Checklist (new window) outlines the basic approach to crisis management. It was prepared for use as a ready reference for all U of L personnel who at some point may be involved in a crisis.

Pre-emptive vs. Reactive Crisis Management

Adopting a pre-emptive approach to media relations is critical in successful crisis management.

Disclosing information as soon as it is verified can be a highly effective strategy, since it keeps the institution on the initiative and quickly eliminates the "breaking news" interest in a story. This technique often summarily defuses a public relations crisis, even when the subject is unpleasant or embarrassing.

The policies and procedures in this plan are based on disclosure as a preferred strategy for managing crises.

General Assumptions

  • Uof L is located in Kentucky's largest city, where it is subject to a considerable degree of media scrutiny.
  • Sentiment is growing for more accountability in higher education, and news coverage has become more investigative.
  • Public perceptions are a key factor in the support U of L receives from legislators, alumni, donors and the community, and in U of L's ability to attract and retain qualified students, faculty and staff.
  • Negative news coverage can damage U of L's reputation.
  • Although crises can pose a threat to U of L's public image, they also present an opportunity for communicating a desired message.
  • U of L can safeguard its reputation by adopting an active, effective approach to crisis communication.

Crisis Communication Policy

General policy

The University of Louisville is committed to taking a pre-emptive approach to public relations crises, using disclosure whenever possible as the preferred strategy for preventing or minimizing public relations crises.

No one is authorized to speak to the news media in a crisis without clearance from the Office of Communications and Marketing.

Communications and Marketing will be responsible for developing crisis communication strategies.

Final approval of these strategies will rest with the University President or his designee.

Crisis prevention

Communications and Marketing will maintain regular contact with vice presidents, deans, directors, department heads, campus police, and faculty, staff and student leaders, advising the appropriate administrator(s) when internal issues or developments appear likely to lead to public relations problems.

Similarly, U of L's administration will regularly notify Communications and Marketing of internal developments that may escalate into public relations crises.

Communications and Marketing also will monitor local, state and national news coverage of higher education, advising the appropriate administrator(s) of issues and/or trends that might lead to negative stories.

Crisis response

When crises erupt, Communications and Marketing will gather and verify information about the crisis, assess the severity of the crisis, and develop strategies concerning how information is to be released, who should speak for the institution and who is to be notified.

The office also will confer with U of L's national media consultant, as appropriate, work out logistical details of releasing information, and distribute verified information as quickly as possible to internal and external audiences.

Crisis Communication Procedure
  • Forseeable crises
    • Crisis assessment
      Communications and Marketing Director Denise Fitzpatrick will be notified immediately of an emerging crisis.
      1. Fitzpatrick will confer with the appropriate U of L official(s) to assess the nature and severity of the crisis.
        • Fitzpatrick may be able to devise a simple strategy to forestall the crisis, particularly if it is confined to a single U of L unit
      2. If issues and events are of sufficient complexity that they require input from several U of L units, or if a simple strategy is not likely to be effective, Fitzpatrick will:
        • Recommend to Associate Vice President for Communications and Marketing John Drees that U of L quickly form a crisis team OR
        • If Drees is not immediately available, recommend to President James Ramsey (or his designee) that a crisis team be quickly formed
    • Formation of a crisis team
      Drees or Ramsey (or his designee) will assemble and chair a crisis team made up of the highest-ranking officials available from the units involved in the crisis.
      1. The composition of the team will vary according to the situation.
      2. The crisis team will convene in the President's Conference Room unless another meeting location is specified by Ramsey or his designee.
      3. At the session, Drees and/or Fitzpatrick will:
        • Gather as many details as possible
        • Recommend strategies for internal and external communication
        • Select an appropriate spokesperson (see University Spokesperson)
      4. Final approval of the recommendations by Drees and/or Fitzpatrick will rest with Ramsey (or his designee).
  • Sudden crises
    • When the sudden occurrence of a severe crisis precludes convening a crisis team, the following emergency procedures will take effect:
      1. Drees and/or Fitzpatrick will:
        • Be notified immediately of the crisis
        • Be apprised of all known facts/background
        • Have direct, priority access to Ramsey or his designee to develop a "first-wave" communication strategy
      2. Communications and Marketing will implement the strategy immediately upon approval by Ramsey or his designee.
    • After implementing "first-wave" communication strategy, Drees and/or Fitzpatrick will assist in forming a crisis team to develop ongoing strategy.
  • Establishing a clear line of communication
    • Communications and Marketing will be authorized to gather and verify information in a crisis, and will be the only department authorized to release information.
      1. A representative of the operating unit "working" the crisis will quickly supply Communications and Marketing with all known details.
      2. All news media contacts will be directed to Communications and Marketing.
  • Releasing information internally
    • Whenever practical, Communications and Marketing will attempt to inform U of L employees of crises before details are released externally.
      1. Communications and Marketing may:
        • Notify U of L units by telephone, personal contact or courier.
        • Issue news bulletins on Groupwise, U of L's administrative computer network, on ULink and/or the university's main page on the World Wide Web.
        • Post details on News Break and ULink.
        • Distribute informational flyers.
        • Set up a telephone hotline.
        • Offer follow-up coverage the News Web site (www.louisville.edu/news/) and on ULink.
  • Informing outside parties
    • Communications and Marketing will coordinate notification of outside parties likely to be affected by or strongly interested in the crisis.
      1. Whenever practical, attempts will be made to:
        • Inform affected parties of impending media calls.
        • Supply them with written information before it is distributed to the news media.
        • Notify them of any planned U of L news briefings.
      2. The U of L officials with the closest working relationships to the parties will handle actual notification.
  • Releasing information to the news media
    • Communications and Marketing will work to supply verifiable details to the news media as rapidly as possible.
      1. This may be done through personal contact, telephone, FAX transmission, radio feed, video feed, background session or news briefing.
        • It may become necessary to schedule periodic news briefings.
    • After releasing information, Communications and Marketing will monitor the news coverage and quickly correct any errors that are made.
  • Evaluation and follow-up
    • Communications and Marketing will document the news coverage surrounding a crisis, including wire stories, newspaper articles, radio and television broadcasts.
    • When the crisis is past, Communications and Marketing will supply the crisis team with a summary of news coverage.
      1. Members of the team will review this report and evaluate U of L's performance under fire. The team will note:
        • Overall success or failure of the crisis communication effort
        • Problems to be avoided in the future
        • Appropriate follow-up measures
      2. Upon request, Communications and Marketing will report the findings of the team to the President's Office.