Five Crisis Communications Best Practices for Higher Education Leaders to Adopt Today

Five Crisis Communications Best Practices for Higher Education Leaders to Adopt Today 

Amid the tumult of leadership resignations, legal challenges to DEI, and debates over free speech, media reports indicate that donors at all levels are rethinking—and in some cases, withholding—their contributions to colleges and universities. Meanwhile, issues of academic freedom, academic integrity, institutional politics, and donor influence continue to roil campuses nationwide.  

Social media hot takes have placed campus leaders and Board members in the crosshairs of the culture wars, while Gallup reports that “Americans’ confidence in higher education is at an all-time low.” Increasingly, administrators and strategic communicators face fierce crosscurrents in their efforts to shape the institutional narrative. 

GG+A has counseled hundreds of colleges, universities, and nonprofit organizations in fundraising, including in the areas of strategic and crisis communications. From our decades of collective experience, here are five crisis communications best practices that higher education leaders can adopt right now to prepare to navigate an unpredictable communications landscape in the coming year.

1. Double Down on Mission and Impact

Express your mission with force and clarity. Don’t let outsiders define your mission and its delivery for you.  

For a framework, revisit your institution’s mission statement and restate your leaders’ commitment to it, frequently and visibly. Look back on an inaugural speech or glean a current quote from your president about what they are committed to achieving in the year ahead.  

Use numbers, not just words—they can pierce the fog of hostile framing. Cite data and tell stories that demonstrate real impact, both within the academy and beyond campus. What is your institution’s research record? Tell the story; don’t assume key stakeholders know it. What is your economic impact on your community, state, and region?  

Own the criteria of what success means for your institution, and demonstrate it with facts, not rhetoric. 

For more inspiration, CASE offers its members a library of sample annual reports, economic and community impact reports, and marcomm impact reports. 

2. Inventory and Strengthen Internal Relationships 

Make sure your leadership team is aligned, connected, and supported. 

The Fall 2023 semester demonstrated that a potentially destabilizing crisis can emerge from any area of campus operations—not only from donors and alumni, but also faculty, student affairs, facilities management, campus police, and campus health. 

Presidents, cabinet members, and communications leaders should meet with heads of each operating group as soon as possible to review and update the existing crisis communications workflow (or to build one quickly, if you do not have one).  

As a team, do not only ask about the legal risks that guide your institution’s response to a crisis. Ask about the reputational risks, as well.

Make sure your process includes communication advice for the president as well as legal advice.  As a team, do not only ask about the legal risks that guide your institution’s response to a crisis. Ask about the reputational risks, as well. 

Leaders now operate in an environment where some stakeholders seek to generate headlines and followers by vilifying them as symbols and icons. You and your colleagues are real people, who dedicate your careers to the academy for the laudable goals of building knowledge and educating students. Seek this shared position from which to connect and lead. 

3. Replenish Your Toolkit 

Like an experienced hiker, check your emergency toolkit in case the weather changes and you need it quickly.  

We have all seen how issues can emerge and escalate through social media, bringing institutional leadership into question. Consequently, make sure your school has effective 24/7 issues monitoring in place. This means revisiting your social media toolkit and equipping your team to be observant of the right channels. Are you harnessing social media dashboards and social listening tools? What terms has your communications team set for Google alerts, and at what frequency? 

Consider creating a rubric with your crisis communications team to decide if you need a presidential statement for a given issue, and if so, when. Create guidelines and criteria for the types of situations that require presidential or institutional comment.  

Dust off your mobile phone contact lists and consider the following: 

  • Are the key people on your campus able to connect ASAP if needed?  
  • Is there a confidential, updated e-mail and cell phone list for the president and cabinet members?  
  • Do the president and development leaders have a confidential, updated e-mail and cell phone list for Board chairs and leaders?  
  • Do you have a coverage plan in place for weekend and evening issues? 
  • Are gift officers for your key, influential donors regularly briefed and informed on issues that arise? 

Finally, ensure internal stakeholders have access to institutional talking points and make core messaging, (such as “who we are” and “what difference we make in the world”), readily available to them. 

4. Manage by Facts and Data, not by Emotion 

When a crisis hits, it’s more important than ever to manage by facts and data. Gather what you hear from donors and reflect on the questions and themes. Consider what you are prepared to respond to and what you’re not yet ready to address. 

Pay close attention to questions coming in through direct channels. How many people are asking these questions? To development, communications, and alumni relations teams it can feel like “everyone,” but it may just be a few. Staff members should share this information with senior leadership and the communications team, so they have a clear picture of what you hear. 

The most important thing to do is listen. Development leaders should have one-on-one conversations with donors and listen to their concerns. Respond if you can, and let the communications team know what kind of messaging would be helpful to incorporate. Be thoughtful about which donors and constituents might need additional attention. 

5. Support Your Team 

Your team members are on the front lines of contact with donors, alumni, faculty, and students. You naturally want them to feel heard and supported, not alone. Make sure team members understand institutional messaging regarding the issue at hand. Development team members should focus on fundraising—what does a specific issue mean for donors in the short term? If you are in a campaign, what does the issue mean for donors in that context?  

Now is the time to demonstrate trust in your team and model that trust for colleagues across campus. Take steps to ensure your team members feel psychological safety amid the noise in the environment. Coach them in how to represent the institution and refrain from responding personally—and provide examples to help them draw this line with donors. When needed, encourage staff members to share any personal concerns with their manager.  

Successfully navigating choppy waters is a matter of setting up a plan and having the discipline to execute, with precision and detail. 

These five practices will help you establish a plan now and position you to weather any upcoming storms.  

Ed Sevilla and Lisa Aaronson have a combined 50 years of experience in strategic communications and advancement leadership across higher education, academic medicine, and arts and culture. For guidance in equipping your communications and fundraising teams to manage potential risks and respond effectively to constituents and donors, contact Ed at esevilla@grenzglier.com and Lisa at laaronson@grenzglier.com.


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About the authors

Ed Sevilla

Senior Vice President

Ed Sevilla is a Senior Vice President of Strategic Communications at GG+A, where he partners with clients to develop effective marketing, communications, and messaging strategies to drive support for key institutional programs and initiatives. He brings more than 25 years of experience in public and private sector marketing, branding, and…

Lisa Aaronson

Senior Vice President

Lisa Aaronson, Senior Vice President, is a strategic communications leader with an expertise in philanthropic analytics, advancement services, strategic planning, stewardship, and brand strategy. Throughout her career, Lisa has built award-winning, high-performing teams and has driven bottom-line results in the healthcare and higher education sectors. Before joining GG+A, Lisa served…