Crisis Communications for Universities: Leading When Your Job’s on the Line

Zach Olsen speaks with The Chronicle of Higher Education

Infinite Global President Zach Olsen was featured in a recent article by The Chronicle of Higher Education that examined considerations for higher education leaders when their jobs are in jeopardy. In this article, Olsen discusses the three main components of a successful leadership strategy: executive presence, strategic thinking, and effective communication. In addition, he highlights several ways that leaders can maintain momentum while navigating difficult transitions and challenges within an organization.

Following the resignation of Michigan State University President Samuel L. Stanley Jr., the publication sought Olsen’s insights on how university leaders can handle rising tensions and manage personal risk when their jobs are on the line. Olsen focused on developing allies, knowing when to engage stakeholders, being prepared to discuss past controversies, understanding one’s exposure, and having the support of a qualified team of legal and communications professionals. He also urged leaders to take a measured approach to situations that involve significant controversy and uncertainty rather than jumping to conclusions and making rash decisions.

Olsen recommended that leaders take steps to cultivate a culture of trust and transparency within their organizations to ensure openness and transparency. “Leaders are extremely vulnerable, because as public figureheads, they are generally held accountable for everything that occurs at their institution, even if they were not directly involved,” the article states. “In the case of Michigan State, Olsen said, Title IX was already a particular vulnerability, and it factored into the board’s allegations against Stanley.”

Ultimately, having a crisis response plan is a key step in successfully managing challenging situations involving change or uncertainty within a university setting. A crisis can be defined as any event that poses a significant threat to the safety, security, or well-being of students, faculty, staff, or visitors, or that has the potential to disrupt the normal operations of the university significantly.

There are several reasons why it is important for universities to have a crisis response plan in place:

To protect the safety and well-being of the university community: A crisis response plan helps to ensure that the university has a plan in place to protect the safety and well-being of students, faculty, staff, and visitors in the event of a crisis. This includes having protocols in place for evacuating buildings, providing medical attention to injured people, and offering support to those affected by the crisis.

To minimize disruption to the university’s operations: A crisis can significantly disrupt the normal operations of a university, leading to lost productivity, financial losses, and damage to the institution’s reputation. A crisis response plan helps minimize this disruption by providing a clear plan for responding to the crisis and restoring normal operations as quickly as possible.

To maintain the university’s reputation: A crisis can significantly impact a university’s reputation, especially if it is not handled well. A well-crafted crisis response plan helps ensure that the university can respond effectively to the crisis and minimize any negative impact on its reputation.

To meet legal and regulatory requirements: In some cases, universities may be required by law or regulatory bodies to have a crisis response plan in place. For example, universities that receive federal funding may be required to have a plan in place to respond to certain types of crises, such as campus shootings or natural disasters.

Read the full article on The Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required) or contact our crisis team today.