The Higher Ed Marketer
The Higher Ed Marketer

Episode 8 · 1 year ago

When Crisis Hits: Reputation Management in Higher Education


A single headline-making crisis can permanently alter how the public perceives your institution.

In the face of a crisis, your reputation is on the line. How should you communicate a crisis to your stakeholders and how can you manage your reputation in the process?

These questions and more are answered on this episode of The Higher Ed Marketer. Bart Caylor, President & Founder at Caylor Solutions Inc, and Troy Singer, Senior Account Executive at Think Patented chat with Christy Jackson, Senior Director of Reputation Management and Communication at UNC Charlotte, about:

- Examples from her work at Virginia Tech and Sweetbriar during their defining crises.

- Crisis communication and reputation management.

- Operational crises vs reputational crises.

- How to manage stakeholder expectations.

- How social media plays a role in crisis communication.

Know of a higher education marketing change agent you’d like to hear on the show? Does your university have an interesting story to be featured? Connect with Bart Caylor or Troy Singer. If you’re not on LinkedIn, check the Caylor Solutions or Think Patented websites instead!

To hear more interviews like this one, subscribe to The Higher Ed Marketer on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your preferred podcast platform.

You were listening to the Higher Ed Marketer, a podcast geared towards marketing professionals in higher education. This show will tackle all sorts of questions related to student recruitment, don't a relations, marketing, trends, new technologies and so much more. If you are looking for conversations centered around where the industry is going, this podcast is for you. Let's get into the show. Welcome to the Higher Ed Marketer podcast. I'm troy singer here with my cohost, Bart Kaylor. And Bart, I am excited and I want the world to know is I got to see you in person for the first time in a while, as we both attended our first higher read conference in over a year. Yeah, that was great, try, I really appreciated being able to hang out with you, and it wasn't on a screen recording to for a podcast with, but going to the Association of Biblical Higher Education, the Abh Conference in Florida was just wonderful. I know so many the other folks attending more grateful to be able to be out and certainly be masked and socially distanced, but it was. It was good to be able to be kind of back in that environment. That's right, Barton. Other than not knowing how to first approach someone, whether you wanted to shake hands, bump this or touch elbows, it was great getting out among other higher ed marketers and presidents and leadership and talking about things like it was almost normal and having a very positive outlook. So again, it was great seeing you. Was Great participating at that conference. At this time, if you would tell us about today's guest, Bart Yeah, I had a chance to meet meet Christy Jackson. She's the senior director of reputation management communication at you and see, Charlotte. She's actually was introduced to me. She's a friend of Jamie Hunt, our episode two interview, from Universe Miami, University of Ohio, and so A.

Christie has a great deal of experience in her career and crisis communications, and I won't steal her thunder, but she's been in a lot of different crises and we'll have a chance to learn from her on how how that expertise has really been helpful and how it could be helpful for any school of any size. Great. Well, at this time, let's bring Christy in. I'm excited to welcome Christy Jackson, senior director of reputation management communication. At you and see Charlotte to the conversation. Christie, thank you so much for joining our podcast today. Thank you for having me try. It's great to be with you in Bart today. We are going to get into some wonderful, maybe a little heavy, conversation around reputation management. But before we do that, can you give our listeners a little bit about you and something personal that they might not be able to get from your linkedin profile? Well, there's a lot they probably won't be able to get from my linkedin profile because I'm not great at keeping that up, but I pledged to do better. Well, as you said, I am currently the senior director of reputation management and Communication at UNC CHARLOTTE. I have been in highered my whole career. I started my career at Virginia Tech and then I moved to Radford University and then I was at sweeper our college before I came to Charlotte five years ago, and throughout that time, unfortunately, crisis has sort of punctuated my whole career. It started on April Sixteen, two thousand and seven with the shooting at Virginia Tech, which is widely known and understood and then from there I have sort of had different kinds of incidents at all of my institutions that I have learned from and grown from and I hope that I can maybe help others learn and grow from those experiences to wow, Christie, thanks for sharing that. You know, when we first spoke about the show, we did a kind of a pre interview, you mentioned that crisis is relative. You know, every crisis is relative to the situation. So tell me more about that. Sure. So in my career I have unfortunately dealt with two school shootings,...

I have dealt with a college closure, I have dealt with a student enrolled at our campus murdering a police officer at another campus and then I have dealt with sort of everything in between and what I have learned in that process us and what I said, you know, crisis is relative, is what may seem like a big deal to someone on their campus are in their organization may seem like Tuesday to someone else. And I say that in Bart you and I talked about this. My hope is that I am in a very exclusive club right you don't want people to have that same friend of reference that you have, and you've been through things like that. But it doesn't have to be that for it to be a crisis. There are reputational crisis that can affect organizations at every level. We see them in the news all the time and they are brought on by decisions people make or don't make or, you know, mishandling of an operational crisis that turns into a reputational crisis, and I think as communicators sometimes it's challenging for us to sort of help our leadership understand what truly is a crisis, what truly rises that level of stop the presses, hold everything. You know, we all have to turn our attention to this and I'll give you an example. After the institution that I was working at announced closure, I was in conversation with the president of another institution and we were talking about what had happened and how it had happened and the response, and this person was trying to empathize with me and they said to me, you know, I get a crisis is so hard. I understand what you're going through. Last year the Health Department gave our dining hall a be rating and this person meante with every good intention and to them, to them that was a crisis because they had they had never really experienced that level of scrutiny before and their students were upset. The families were upset. They're paying for this money, but these dining plans and you're giving my child subpar food, and it was awful for them in the moment they were in it.

Now, for me and others of my colleagues who have perhaps experienced something that's a little more intense, we would say that's probably a Tuesday right a be health writing on a college campus, probably a Tuesday. You need to address it. It's an issue, but you can manage it. It's not. It is not a seismic potential seismic shift for your organization if you don't handle it correctly. But for them it was very much a huge deal. And and so it's relative. It's relative to the people living it, it's relative to your audience. It's also relative to where you are in time. I think we've probably all had those things that we felt were going to explode and they didn't, and then the things that we never dreamed would be a big deal and they did. It's kind of an unpredictable environment when you're dealing and working in crisis. Yeah, that's a that's a really good point and I think that you know, even as you just demonstrated there within your own career. I mean you you mentioned crisis and as you've experienced, it comes in all shapes and sizes. I mean, certainly Virginia Tech versus the dining hall getting a bee rating is a much different size and shape and, like you said, it's relative and there's certainly a difference in I know you and I talked earlier about the idea of when a crisis is being done to you and your school and your organization, for is, when it's a result of a decision that's made by the school or the organization. I mean, tell me about that. I know there's there's a difference there. So there is. Both are both can be equally awful but in different ways. When you have, or what I have discovered, when you have sort of that crisis, it's brought on by a threat, whether it is an act of violence or a hurricane or or something like that, it's an operational crisis. What we really where I am now, we really deemed an operational crisis. In a lot of ways, it's almost easier to manage initially because the needs are so similar and they're very simple. It's life health safety. That's what your first action is to do that, to protect life health safety, to make sure people have what they need to do that. It's a simplistic message, at least initially. When you're dealing with more of you know coming out of...

...the gate this is a reputational issue and it is complex and it is messy and perhaps you know the decision is what the decision is, but you know people are going to fall on all sides of that decision. I think that is a harder thing to manage because the communication needs and the expectations are so vast and varied and your audiences are coming at this from a completely different frame of mind. They are what they need in that moment. Is is very different than if you know there's a tornado coming, well, you need to get to the basement, versus your CEO has embezzled money and now you have to to announce that. It's just a different kind of message and it takes a different kind of management, which is not to say again, you miss manage a hurricane, you're on your way to a reputational crisis. And you're on your way to having to explain a whole lot more than you than you thought you were going to have to do. I will also say I think there's also more grace expended in one than the other. With your audiences, people can genuinely agree that a hurricane is bad and an act of violence is bad and that shouldn't have happened to you. And there is grace and there is compassion and there's kindness, usually from in the in those moments, where as announcing poor choices by leadership, controversial decisions by leadership, that grace and that kindness and that 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 be out of the gate right away. I really appreciate that perspective. In along the lines of managing I often hear that a big part of communications is managing expectations. So can you do a little farther and tell us what your experience is with that? I think with as a communicator, you have to manage expectation sort of up, down and out. So you have to manage with your leadership what is possible in this situation. When can we when can we stop it? When can we make it better, and when can we apply pressure until the bleeding sort of eases? And when is our only hope just to come in and clean it up? Not Always, but sometimes that...

I think most communicators have had this experience at some point in their career. There's this expectation that no matter what, PR can fix it. Well, we'll just spin it, we'll just spin it, and that is a naughty word as far as I'm concerned. With, you know, spinning. We don't spend. We tell the truth. We tell the truth. But there are sometimes, and I'm sure you gentlemen have seen it, there is nothing you can do except wait for the storm to pass and start the clean up, and I think you have to be honest with your leadership when that happens. You all have to go in face in the situation, on the same page, and I would say there's a lot of that managing down to with with your team and with others in the organization on this is what this is what's possible for us to do and what's not. And when I when managing out, I mean with your audiences. 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 and I think it is important to be up front with this is what I have, this is what I can tell you and this is why I can't, and if I can't, I'm going to tell you why I can't. You know, working in public education we faced that a lot. We are under a lot of federal guideline state guidelines for information we can release and, as you gentlemen have probably also discovered, the right to know versus be want to know is often very confused, especially in a crisis, and it and it's managing that. And the other thing I would also say is understanding the expectations of your audiences. And my most recent are my current job. We did a lot of research with our campus constituents, our faculties, at students and families and sort of what they wanted to hear in whine a crisis, in a non crisis situation. And you know, I think it's really easy when you're in the room where it's happening, to assume everyone has the same information that you have to work from and that their understanding in the same context that you have. And what we found out is just because we didn't think someone would want to know that, because it didn't seem... a big deal, didn't mean they didn't actually want to know it. Sometimes our audiences just wanted us to reassure them that we we saw the hurricane to even though it wasn't here, but we're watching it and if anything happens we're going to let you know, but if you don't hear from us, you're good. And we did that and we started operating in that way and it really, I think, helps build that goodwill and that social capital so when the big things happen you have more to draw from because you've shown up for your audiences in the small moments. That that makes sense. They'll give you more grace in the big moments if you showed up in the small moments. That's really, really good. I think that plays out so well and so much of these, whether it's crisis communications, are just communications in general. I think that's that's quite quite a good point. I know that, Christy, one of the things when we were talking earlier you'd mentioned how much crisis communications and reputation management has changed with, you know, social media. I mean obviously you know even this year, you know, two thousand and twenty one, we've seen the crisis and in the capital insurrection in the district of Columbia and things like that. How do you think social media plays a role in crisis communication and planning and reputation management? You know, with with that, I mean certainly over your career, it is changed vastly. You know, I think it's the wild card in everything we do in a lot of ways, and especially in crisis. I often tell my team assume in most crises you're going to be two steps behind out of the gate because of social especially when it comes to the more operational kind of situations. Assume your you are likely to find out something has happened on your campus because you just got tagged on social media and someone is, you know, taken a video of it and and is letting you know that way, and I think that makes it far more challenging to do what we do because you will never have complete control of the message. I mean you can't with social journalism and you know, keyboard warriors and keyboard courage, and so I think. But I would also say I think you have to give respect to that space and you...

...have to treat that space like you do other mediums. In a crisis, you have to be delivering content for that space, you have to be monitoring that space and you have to take it seriously. I have worked in the past with folks, Oh, that's just social, which is social? Well, it's just what are no one's paying attention to it, except they are, except our students are. That's where they all are. So if there is a rumor running rampant that we can dispel, we should dispel it, in my opinion. Now that's not to say I believe engaging controls, because they don't, and I think that's going back to my managing expectations. I think with social you kind of have to have that. What's our baseline of tolerance here? What are we going to say? Is a normal level of negativity and nastiness that we're going to see in this moment? And when do we engage in when we don't? But I think it has shifted everything we do as communicators. You know, there is no it. It forces the rapid response in a crisis. There is. No, we got to gather all the facts and we got to make sure everything is perfect and then we'll send out a press release. No, no, no, no, you are out there and you were saying something fast, and you know. That's where the holding statement comes in, acknowledging here's what we know, here's what we don't here's what we're going to go back. But it has, it has forced the speed at which we work as professionals, especially in a crisis, because if you're not out there, they're going to be out there and I promise you, whatever they say is likely not going to be accurate. You know. Just with that in mind, I mean so much of social to whether it's crisis or just in communications with you know, you know you've got a troll out there. Many times you can rely on those allies that are there on social media to help along the way. I mean, like you said earlier, you invest in the small and you can you reap the trust in the bigger things. How much do you think that plays into? I mean, as I look at, you know, the schools that are listening to this, I mean they might not necessarily be in crisis mode all the time, but it seems to me that there's a little bit of investment...

...that you can make on social to start gathering around those, you know, allies that are going to, you know, come to your support when the time comes. I absolutely agree with that and my team and I, all my teams and I, we talked a lot about rapport building versus reporting and using social to also to build that rapport to have those allies, to have those fault leaders that will come to your defense, and not even come to your defense, but just share the right information it. That's what it is. Half the time it's just correcting that and I will tell you, there's nothing I love more than that self regulation and correction on social where you don't even have the way in because fifty other of your biggest supporters have just done that for you. But I do think it is it is about and I am not a social expert. That's why we have people who are. But to me, when you're when you're building that content and you're putting on social, you really are strengthening and building your relationships with the people who are out there. That is how alumnice day connected it tell student. I mean it's it's relationship building, it's pride building. So again, if you invest there, then when something bad happens you are more likely to have the people coming and say it. Actually you can believe them because here, here are all the ways that they've they've told the truth before, they've shown up for us before, and I do think we're lying on that network to help you. Is Critical and I think that often is far more authentic to the people receiving that information when it comes from others than when it comes from you. I mean, I can set there and type on facebook responses all day that I'm telling you the truth as a university, but if you know you bart, the respected Alumna, alumnus, is saying it, then I think that often carries more way. Well, I don't know about you, Bart, but thank you, Christy. I just feel I've experienced or audited a three hundred and one level communications course. They're in the last twenty minutes and you gave it so passionately. It's very evident why you are good at what you do. At the end of each one of our episodes, we like to ask...

...our guests to offer a quick tip or something that other marketers could either implement or take away as a nugget usable in the next thirty days. If we were asked that of you, what would that be? If you don't have a plan, get one. If you do have a plan, dust it off and Polish it up and test it. I think so many people oftentimes with there's so much going on right now, right there's always too much work to do and the crisis is the thing you hope never happens, so it's easy to sort of push it away, but I think you need to view it as an insurance policy. You invest in it and you hope you never need it. But in addition to writing the plane, you got to practice your plan, you've got to get it out and and build that muscle memory, because there is only so much that can be templated and flow charted. You as a person, you as a leader, need to know how you're going to respond and make sure you have built that depth of knowledge so that when it does happen, and I hope it never does, that you are your you know what to do, you know how to do it and you can do it successfully. While Christy, thank you for that and thank you for joining us and sharing your journey today. I thought that you provided not just that, but many other takeaways and insights that others will be able to implement as they think about how they'll handle crisis in the future. Again, thank you to everyone. The Higher Red Marker podcast is sponsored by Kaylor solutions and education, marketing and branding agency and by thinking, patented a marketing, execution, printing and mailing provider of higher red solutions. On behalf of my cohost Bart Taylor, I'm choice singer. Thanks for joining us. You've been listening to the Higher Ed Marketer. To ensure that you never miss an episode, subscribe to the show in your favorite podcast player. If you're listening with apple podcasts. We'd love for you to leave a quick rating of the show. Simply tap the number of stars you think the podcast deserves. Until next time.

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