Crisis Communications: Respond. Don’t be Forced to React.

Across the nation, students are demonstrating their support for Palestinians through calls for divestment – an end to financial ties to Israel or any company that contributes to the war in Gaza.

The first student arrests at Columbia University and City College in New York sparked a wildfire of demonstrations across U.S. colleges, including the University of Texas (UT) at Austin.

There is surely room for debate about the nature of the protests, but it is important to keep in mind that students have been organizing demonstrations dating back to the Vietnam War. So, the question is not if but when a protest will happen. For this reason and more, every campus must establish and enforce a crisis communications plan.

Determine who will be in charge, who is deputized to engage with students, staff and the media as well as what steps your team needs to take before launching each targeted response. Having templates on hand for anticipated scenarios is a wise way to avoid reacting rather than responding. This tactic also increases response time and maximizes your ability to deploy rapid communications.

Know your approved methods for communicating in advance. Utilize every system, from text alerts to loudspeakers, emails, leaflets, social media and even in-person mediators. No matter the method, keep all communications clear and consistent.

Public safety is of course every campus leader’s chief concern. Sometimes, explaining the “why” behind leadership actions can help prevent chaos – and even deescalate a situation. Tell students why encampments are disruptive and unsafe. Provide a heads-up that there will be an increase in police presence. And – engage with students in a way that acknowledges their concerns without taking sides. Leaders could even have a protest protocol in place, including a mediation task force, to facilitate constructive conversations and reach a peaceful resolution.

Last, but certainly not least, know your protocol for engaging the media. A well-prepared team does not get pressured for comment or find themselves retracting haphazard statements. With a crisis communications plan, your team is empowered to say, “We’re reviewing the facts and will communicate a decision as soon as it has been made with the thoughtfulness it deserves.”

Leaders who do their homework ahead of time are most prepared for a crisis.

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