How Student Affairs Departments Should Write Crisis Statements According to a PR Expert

There will be times when students and coworkers look to you to speak up or take a stand. 

Perhaps there have been protests on campus and students want to know where your office stands on the issue. Or, maybe you made a decision about a program that left students feeling frustrated and unheard. 

You might not have a step-by-step guide for how to handle those tricky situations. Yet, there are things you can do to proactively prepare for the worst.

I recently had the chance to hop on a Zoom call with Alyson Seligman, owner of the strategic communications company The SBS Agency and founder of The Modern Savvy.

Alyson Seligman - Public Relations & Strategic Communications Expert

Alyson worked at the University of South Florida’s marketing department within student affairs for about three years. She also received her master’s degree in marketing strategic communications from USF. From there, she transitioned to public relations work at an agency for five years before launching The SBS Agency. Alyson has been the president of SBS, which primarily focuses on hospitality and non-profit organizations, for 10 years. She also keeps busy as the face and personality behind The Modern Savvy, a life and style blog, which she started at the same time as SBS.

Needless to say, she knows a thing or two about managing messages and brands. 

Alyson told me that managing a brand is all about crafting a thoughtful mission and vision while being mindful of your intended audience. So, in the student affairs world, that means knowing your department’s core values and staying true to them as you work to support students and their families.

Sounds easy enough, right? But what happens when crises emerge, or your department makes a mistake, putting your reputation on the line? 

Alyson has some suggestions. 

The Interview

Q: We are in a time when our audiences are expecting us to take a stance, stand in solidarity, or take ownership if we’ve failed them in some way. Based on this current climate, how might you categorize the different types of messages that student affairs professionals should plan for?

A: It really depends on the institution. That, first and foremost, will dictate a lot about how messaging is prepared and whether it’s proactive or reactive. 

Every year, you have to come up with a plan for the type of messages you’ve had [to send] in the past. Are there common themes that come up year after year? Or are there three to four types of topics that typically come up — whether it’s race relations or, this year, the election? That way, you can mentally prepare for what that looks like.

If there are key themes, there’s an opportunity to come up with what your statements look like [ahead of time] so that if something comes up, the statement could change [based on the situation] but you still have that key messaging. The messaging can be shown to your marketing department or the director of your student affairs department for pre-approval. That way, you can work through [the specifics] when you’re not in urgent crisis management or reputation-management mode. 

Q: What are the key components that #SAPros should consider as they’re crafting their messages?

A: It depends on what your department is trying to say. 

Media Training 101 tells you that just because a reporter comes to you with a question, that doesn’t mean you have to answer it. You answer with what you want to say. You don’t necessarily have to start with exactly what they’re asking. 

Sometimes, you’ll be cornered into a topic that you don’t want to go down. [With that], as long as you’re answering in the same theme, that’s fine. You answer in the way you want to. So, make sure your messaging is always true to who you are and the actual message you’re looking to convey.

Q: Staying true to your department’s mission and values is important to all messaging. So, should that mission and those values be reiterated directly in a message, or is it something that’s okay to just be implied?

A: Sometimes it will be more direct; other times it’s within the statement. It depends on the topic versus a general protocol to follow.

Q: Is there a format or template for what the message should include? For example, Let’s say parents are reaching out to your department because they don’t believe enough programming is being done on campus for students. Though COVID regulations are in place, there is still an expectation that students are being engaged on campus because they’re paying the “student fee.”

A: The response depends on what the department is doing; are there more virtual events? Are they using money to enhance their digital infrastructure? It really depends on how each department is re-allocated or saving the money. Perhaps they have or they create a quarterly newsletter targeted to parents about what they are doing (being proactive when possible often mitigates a lot of these questions). That said, here is what a response could look like: 

“Student safety is always our number one priority. We are currently working with our student body on how to best utilize the student fee to engage your student in a meaningful, fun and safe way. Do you receive our parent newsletter with updates about the latest happenings in student life?”

Q: Is there anything that #SAPros should absolutely avoid in their messaging?

A: In general, you want to avoid anything inflammatory, derogatory, racist – any of the obvious things. 

Institutions are traditionally very accepting of all backgrounds, faiths, all those things, so you’d want to avoid anything that might be triggering to your students. Everything goes back to being mindful of who you’re communicating to. But, at the end of the day, you would never want to say anything that would insight additional tension.

Q: Are there times when a message is absolutely necessary? How does this compare to a time when sending a message might just be suggested?

A: A lot of times it’s about reading the room and reading the audience. I’ve seen a lot of organizations that want to make a statement about something that one person said and, oftentimes, you’re creating a conversation when there was very little chatter. So, sometimes, it’s better to let it lie.

Now, if you see something bubbling, or you’re recognizing that it’s not just one person, or conversations are bubbling up on social media, or students are coming to you – in other words, it’s not necessarily that the tension is high but there’s something where you feel it’s off – there’s an opportunity to opt in to sending something out ahead of time. There are also ways to weave in messaging in a weekly newsletter or email that delicately touches on topics without making an entire statement.

If someone [does] come to you and says something is [all over] social media, don’t just assume that as fact. Pause, take a look, and see what the dialogue is. Maybe ask two to three key student ambassadors whom you trust who have an ear to the community to see if it’s fact before you go ahead and issue something and create a dialogue about a conversation that wasn’t even really there. 

There’s sometimes a disconnect between professionals and students, so having a focus group of a couple active students and some that are a bit more removed will create an intentional, diverse group to be able to keep a better finger on the pulse of what the conversation and temperament is at your institution.

Q: It’s important to be thoughtful about a message, but how much time should you give yourself before sending out a message? I imagine the balance between timeliness and thoughtfulness is a tricky one.

A: It’s critical to be timely in an age when everything is immediate. However, you can never go back in time once you disseminate a message. I’d rather you take an extra one-to-two hours to pause and review with the people who need to review it. 

Being thoughtful and reflective before you hastily send out a message is critical. Once you put that message out, you could wind up creating a storm when it could’ve just been a few raindrops.

There can be times when you say, “We appreciate your patience,” or you reference that you’re working to create a thoughtful response, or you acknowledge that you want to review it and put the right leaders and people in place to respond fully, honestly, and transparently. People respect that. 

And sometimes there’s an opportunity to say, “We appreciate your patience as we work to gather information to respond to your questions.” People just want the acknowledgment that you’re on it.

Q: Are there specifications to consider regarding who should be sending the message? Should it be a person or the department in totality?

A: I typically say that people connect to people. And I would say to be consistent. 

For example, maybe it’s always the director sending the message. That way, you’re raising the profile of that person and giving a human connection to the department.

At the same time, I think departments need to be aware of turnover. So, if you are on a campus with a lot of transition and it feels uneasy to [have a consistent voice], then you should go from the department level. There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to messaging and branding.

Q: As student affairs professionals, we’re often expected to remain neutral so that we can continue supporting students from every background, perspective, etc. What makes this complicated, though, is that neutrality might fail to have a meaningful impact. How might you suggest that #SAPros reconcile this relationship?

A: Every message goes back to this idea about whether the core values of your institution are to be inclusive. 

For example, look at what #BlackLivesMatter taught us. Saying “All Lives Matter” wasn’t the right message. We know that all lives matter. When you say Black Lives Matter, it doesn’t take away from all the other lives that matter. 

That’s an example wherein you can really support one group in a steadfast way without diminishing another. So, if there’s an opportunity where you need to take a stand, you can. Just find a way that doesn’t alienate others. You have to be mindful.

Q: Having multiple readers can help ensure a strong message. Are there always voices that should be included at the table? Conversely, is there ever a time when having multiple opinions or certain parties would be more problematic than helpful?

A: I would encourage every department to go to their marketing department on campus and get clarity on what communication needs to look like. Clarify the process for communications [and get a] documented approval process. 

You don’t want your department to send something out and then it ends up biting them because they didn’t get approval from the marketing department when they should have. An approved document for when you need to craft a statement or make a newsletter, for example, will provide clarity on what your institution finds acceptable.

Q: What else do you consider when constructing a message? Is there any additional advice you’d give to student affairs professionals?

A: At the end of the day, I think it’s critical to continue to have a finger on the pulse of the students. That is everything. That is who you’re generally targeting. 

It’s very easy at an institution to get disconnected or to always be in touch with the same people, so you feel like the small number of students you speak to are representative of the whole. 

But you already know what they think. They’re already involved. What about all the others? Really make sure student affairs professionals understand the climate of the entire student body and not just the ones that they speak to most often.

The answer on how to construct a thoughtful, timely message? It depends. So, take the time to understand your institution’s stance on marketing and utilize Alyson’s suggestions to advocate for statements that are mission-driven and values-based. 

If that’s at the center, you can’t go wrong.

What questions do you still have about strategic messaging? Connect with us on Twitter @HelloPresence. You can also follow Alyson on Instagram @themodernsavvy.

You might also be interested in our previous post on 4 Essential Elements to Include in Your Office’s Anti-Racist Statement.

Chelsea Jordan

About the author: Chelsea Jordan is a student affairs jack-of-all-trades with a passion for women's leadership. She currently serves as the Assistant Director for Campus Operations at Tufts University, and if she could have dinner with anyone tomorrow, it would be with the woman who inspires her most: Brené Brown. Learn how we can help get your students involved.

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