May 13

When Crisis Hits: Reputation Management in Higher Education


Crisis moments are inevitable for any educational institution. Education marketers need to strengthen their brands to withstand these inopportune situations.

That’s why today, I’m featuring a conversation that Troy Singer and I had with Christy Jackson on the The Higher Ed Marketer podcast.

Christy is Senior Director of reputation management and communication at UNC Charlotte.

Not only is she an amazing professional at communications in general, Christy has made a reputation for her leadership role in managing crisis communications for two school shootings, a college closure, and even the murder of a campus police officer by an enrolled student.

Jerry Richardson Stadium on the campus of UNC Charlotte. | Source: Wikimedia Commons

No one – including Christy – becomes an education marketer to live through such tough moments as the ones she’s gone through.

But when the unexpected happens, you’ll be better prepared to protect and strengthen your education brand by what she has to share with us in this conversation.

Let’s kick this off with the first thing that Christy shared with us in the podcast.

Every crisis is relative to the school and the situation.

Christy Jackson began her career in education marketing and communications at Virginia Tech where, unfortunately, tragedy struck in 2007 when a school shooting occurred.

Virginia Tech Masacre Candlelight Vigil | Source: Wikimedia Commons

Since then, she has had a series of crises punctuating her career. School closings, campus violence, and many other negative events.

Through it all, she’s noticed something important.

Crisis is relative. What may seem like a big deal to someone on their campus, or in their organization may seem like [just a normal day] to someone else.

In other words, you don’t have to be a giant school with a giant budget to have giant problems.

Every education marketer should learn about the various kinds of crises that can happen and how to handle them appropriately…No matter what size or type of institution you work for.

Operational Crisis

There are more than one kind of crisis.

Broadly speaking, there are those crises that happen to your organization and those that your organization causes by a decision, a mistake, or failure.

When a crisis happens to you, like a natural disaster or an act of violence, this is what Christy calls an operational crisis.

What should you communicate during an operational crisis?

Life. Health. Safety. Your first action is to protect life, health safety – to make sure people have what they need to [stay safe]. It’s a simplistic message, at least initially.

At the beginning of an operational crisis, the most important thing is to communicate what your audiences need to know as quickly as possible to protect their lives, health, and safety.

Reputational Crisis

Reputational crises are more difficult to manage.

These are crisis moments that are provoked by something done or said in-house.

There are reputational crises that can affect organizations at every level. We see them in the news all the time. They are brought on by decisions people make or don’t make or a mishandling of an operational crisis. 

It is complex. It is messy. The decision is what the decision is, but people are going to fall on all sides of that decision. That is a harder thing to manage because the communication needs and the expectations are so vast and varied. 

Your audiences are coming at this from a completely different frame of mind. What they need in that moment is very different than if there’s a tornado coming. It takes a different kind of management.

Part of our job as education marketers is helping “our leadership understand what truly is a crisis.”

In other words, it’s our job to help leadership understand when to stop their normal routines and face the crisis head on.

Different Crisis, Different Reactions

Even among the same audiences, there will be differing reactions to different crises.

Depending on the kind of crisis you’re experiencing, you’ll find your same audiences can give you more or less grace than you want or need.

There is more grace extended in [operational crises] than [reputational crises] with your audiences. People can generally agree that a hurricane or act of violence is bad, and that it shouldn’t have happened to you. There is grace, compassion, and kindness usually in those moments. 

But when announcing poor choices by leadership or controversial decisions by leadership, that grace, kindness, and patience isn’t always immediately extended. You don’t have any sort of space to kind of get your footing beneath you. You have to just get [the message] out of the gate right away.

If You Can’t Say What, Tell Them Why

As with all of our podcast conversations, I simply can’t fit everything that we covered into a single blog post!

But let me leave you with one more amazing piece of advice Christy gave us.

During crisis management, you’ll often be restricted in what you can and can’t say.

In some instances, federal and state guidelines restrict the information you can convey.

But whenever you must withhold information, it never goes over well with audiences.

Here’s what to do when that happens.

I have discovered over the course of my career, that even if you can’t tell people what they want to know, if you can tell them why you can’t tell them, it often goes over a little bit better. 

It is important to be upfront with what you can tell them, and if you can’t [tell them something], why you can’t. The right to know versus the want to know is often very confused, especially in a crisis. 

Discover more when you listen to the podcast!

Like all of our blog post reviews of The Higher Ed Marketer podcasts, there’s so much more to learn in the podcasts themselves.

Listen to our interview with Christy Jackson to get even more insights into:

  • Researching your audiences communications expectations
  • Discovering what your audience needs to hear and when
  • Gaining trust among your audiences during a crisis

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