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Is Your Campus Prepared to Communicate During a Crisis?


An expert offers some best practices as well as new ideas for Catholic campus communications during these unprecedented times

By Chris Duffy


If it hasn’t already, this academic year will test your institution’s crisis communications capabilities.

New crises are coming at schools from every direction: College leaders have worked hard to safely reopen, ramp up distance learning, and deliver the quality college experience that students and their families expect; our country is approaching the most divisive presidential election in U.S. history; and the nation is reckoning with racial injustice, prompting conversations and activism that will continue on campuses this fall.


You might already be handling your first emerging issue of the school year while balancing the challenges of remote work, budget uncertainty, and conflicting opinions from key stakeholders. The potential for crises on higher education campuses is reaching a highpoint. This is what I’m hearing from college presidents and administrators across the country as they chart new territory to serve their campus communities in 2020 and beyond.  

It is therefore an excellent time for Catholic campuses to review their communications policies and protocols. Here are some best practices in crisis communications, as well as new advice to consider in these unprecedented times.

Lead with your values. In times of crisis, your organizational values can both help you make decisions and build loyalty from your key audiences. As Catholic colleges and universities, you have an advantage. Your Catholic values are already at the heart of everything you do, including your communications. These values are authentic and unique to your community, and are applicable in any situation.

Have a crisis communications plan. Colleges and universities are accustomed to planning operationally for a crisis, but school officials must also be prepared to communicate during a crisis. Take a moment to consider the following questions:

  • Who are our most important audiences, how do we reach them, and in what order?
  • Who will make communications decisions during a crisis?
  • Who has access to our communications channels?
  • Who can we call for backup?

Having a trusted crisis communications adviser on retainer can help your team as it regularly responds to challenging issues and fill any gaps you may have in your crisis communications plan.

Don’t wait to communicate. Students, parents, faculty and staff, donors, and community members need to hear from you early and often, even if you don’t have all the information yet. With COVID-19, information changes daily and is incredibly fluid. Be transparent and open in your communications. Provide answers when you have them and admit it when you don’t. Communicate your thinking, the values and criteria guiding your decision making, and a timetable for reaching those decisions.

Actively listen. The best way to get ahead of any threatening issue is to make sure you’re getting information from the sources that matter most to your institution. To keep a pulse on anything that may arise, your crisis communications team should meet regularly to monitor conversations on campus and on social media. Even though many staffers are working remotely, someone on the team should always understand the pulse on campus. Gathering good internal intelligence will help inform your decisions.

Communicate with empathy. Be mindful that students, faculty and staff, alumni, donors, and community members are all enduring this pandemic and that the human consequences are real. Failing to acknowledge the hardships of this moment will be perceived as tone-deaf and accomplish the opposite of what you intend. People often aren’t ready to receive messages unless their emotions are addressed first.

Staying silent is not an option. It used to be easy for organizations to stay away from controversial issues and remain above the fray. But with renewed attention on racial injustice, silence is often perceived as the loudest statement. Look at every issue through the lens of your Catholic values, determine where you stand, and develop your messages from there.

Keep everyone on the same team. While there can often be a healthy tension between the administration and faculty and staff, prioritizing transparent communications with these groups can alleviate many potential issues. Faculty and staff across the country are voicing their concerns over learning plans while pursuing racial equity and social justice in academia. They’re also worried about budget cuts and impacts to their livelihood. These situations can all become crises if poorly handled.

Hear their concerns and strive to bring faculty and staff into the fold with your messaging. This group is an important audience, but also an important ally as you navigate this year. With everyone on the same team, you’ll be able to better serve the school’s mission together and won’t spend this semester putting out small internal fires.

Move on from your mistakes. Higher education leaders are in completely uncharted territory. If you’re reading this and thinking your communications have been lacking so far this year, you’re not alone and you’re not too late. Accept that you will make mistakes or reverse your decisions. When that happens, make meaningful apologies with your audiences and keep the lines of communication open.

Double down on communications. It’s easy to put communications on the back burner. Many leaders prefer to stay behind the scenes to tackle challenges and save communications for later (often when it’s too late). Even if you’re making all the right moves, your audiences won’t understand the thought and care you put into this academic year unless you’re communicating along the way. Even though the days are long and to-do lists never-ending, communications must be at the top of your priority list.

Your institution’s reputation is paramount. Good communication can protect and even enhance that reputation by creating trust with audiences and showing your values during one of the most challenging times in our history.


Chris Duffy is the vice president of public relations at Goff Public, a Saint Paul, MN-based public relations and public affairs firm. He can be found on Twitter @cmduffy