The Critical Nature of Crisis Communications

ABOUT THIS EPISODE

Christy Jackson, Sr. Director of Reputation Management and Communication at UNC Charlotte and Chris Gonyar, Director of Emergency Management at UNC Charlotte join the podcast to discuss why operational and communicational responses must be aligned during a crisis, and how to ensure that actually happens.

You're listening to enrollment growth university from Helix Education, the best professional development podcast for higher education leaders looking to grow enrollment at their college or university. Whether you're looking for fresh enrollment growth techniques and strategies or tools and resources, you've come to the right place. Let's get into the show. Welcome back to enrollment growth university, a proud member of the connect eedu podcast network. I'm Eric Olson with Helix Education, and we're here today with Christy Jackson, senior director of reputation management and Communication, and Chris gone, your director of emergency management at UN see Charlotte. Christy, Chris, welcome to the show. Thank you, Eric. Thank you happy to be here. So excited to have you both and to talk with you both today about the critical nature of crisis communications on our campuses. But before we dig in, can you give the listeners a little background on yourself and your role at UN see Charlotte, beginning with Christy? Sure so. I have been at your C Charlotte for almost six years. I started as the Director of communications for Business Affairs and the pressis communication manager and then about a year ago, transitioned over university commutation to microtfolio expanded a bit to include other areas of communication that I had not good a song before quite some time. So I now have new relations, medatorial services, those sorts of front areas. But I had been hired my whole career by choice. It is what I am passionate about and believe makes a real impacting the world. So I am happy to beat UNC Charlotte and happy to be able to work with Chris every day. I've been with UNC Charlotte just short of eight years. When I started the the office was pretty primarily focused on business continuity and business continuity planning. We've expanded over the last eight years or so into what I would call sort of a full fledged office of emergency management with all the roles or responsibilities that that that encompasses. So responsible for things like the university he's preparedness, operational response and recovery from emergencies, responsibility for the institutions exert emergency exercises and trainings, management of the emergency operations center during an activation, as well as the business continuity components. Prior to coming on board at UNC CHARLOTTE, I worked about seven years in the private sector and Emergency Preparedness Consulting. So traveled or all around the country, primarily the southeast, I would say, to include Texas, doing emergency plans and trainings and exercises for primarily state and local government, but sort of all different types of organizations and entities. I love having you both here because of the unification necessary to do crisis comes well and I'm excited to dig into the governance of that. Let's start off there, Christie. WHO SHOULD BE RESPONSIBLE FOR CRISIS COMMUNICATIONS ON CAMPUS? So I think that's an interesting question, right who should be or who most typically is? Hmm, I think a lot of the times, as I had and I have seen this progression of my career, I think a lot of times chresti communication is styloid on a college university campus, sometimes it's run exclusively out of the communication shop. Sometimes I had seen it run out of police and public safety or there that version. There I've seen it run out of just the chancel or president's office, and I think that's where you run into some issues. So at you and C sure, we have really tried to take on a collaborative, sort of CO...

...owned approach to crisis communication and that is bringing all the people that need to be involved around the table to expedite expert communications in crisis. So I would say crests shop, in my shop, really sort of CO owned the crisis communication, depending on the nature of the crisis, whether it's operational or reputational or both. And we also have looked really be hard to streamline the approvals of that. I am sure my colleagues and a higher education can relate to the time constraints that you were sometimes under in a crisis and the level of approval that has it can sometimes be necessary. So with our crisis communication planning we've really tried to streamline that. We have what we call the Crisis Communication Advisory Board, which brings together the chances office, Legal Affairs, university communications and off to the operational side of the House of crisis shop to ensure that we have all the information you needs not only construct communication but also get it approved quickly and get it out. So that is something we've really worked hard at to streamline. I mean we know in any organization the chancellor or president, enter CEO is the person ultimate ler is possible for your crisis response. That we've really tried to take a lot of that leg work out for that person to make sure we're giving them the best products possible and a finalized products possible, as finalize a reproduct possible as quickly as we can, and that has really only been made achievable through the partnership between communications and reducy management. Chris, talk about why operational and communication responses must be aligned during a crisis and how to ensure that actually happens. Yeah, absolutely, and I think you know, one thing that I would say of maybe learned and grown particularly over the last five or six years on this topic, when we really tackled formalizing our crisis communications at you and and see, Charlotte, is I was pretty adamant, I think, when we when we kind of kicked off this project, and really it's sort of steering the ship kind of fell into my into my lap, I was pretty adamant that it was very important to have a a delineation or a differentiation between the two and and who was doing what and who was responsible for what and and the difference between our crisis communications plan and our emergency operations plan and the people that were responsible and the teams and really making sure that those lines were were drawn and through the planning process and through the some of the, you know, real world sort of responses that we've pad, I've, you know, entirely changed my feeling on that and that they have to be connected and they have to be intertwined and they're really can't be a definitive, you know line or you know, definitive one owner or rolls the responsibilities, if that makes sense. We have to we have to be aligned on everything and it has to be, you know, seamless, because it's so you know, what what we do on sort of the safety, insecurity and Response and operational response side has to be connected to what we're telling people about what we're doing, but also what we're telling people we need them to do and what what the expectation on on sort of what I...

...call the end user, you know, some people, the client, the person that we're sending or providing the information to. So that's something that, you know, it may seem like, yeah, of course they have to be aligned and they have to be intertwined. It was not necessarily that. I did not necessarily feel that way, you know, five, six years ago, but through the process of developing our plan and our plans and going through these things. It became pretty clear that they that they have to be Christie. You say, Oh, I'm sorry, that could add to that. I think what we both born in Christ use this is your communications has to match your decisions in your actions. And I think when you don't have that alignment, which I have seen other institutions have, that is I think that's really really start to run into problems and you start to run into trust issues with your with your cant but and I think that by aligning our Chi plans, hopefully we have quote back down a little bit there. And you know, there were really two times. I think that they're two examples of when when it was starting to really come together for us that I can think back to. And one was during the planning process. I think the most one of the most important things we did, or, you know, maybe the most important thing we did, was getting down on paper what our you know, what we're what were the founding principles of what we were trying to do and what we're our sort of our our founding, you know, goals, transparency and timeliness and, you know, honesty in those sorts of things. And then when we actually had to follow what we had put on paper when it wasn't easy, when it when it made more work for us, and when it and when it wasn't the easy route and wasn't the easy thing to do. But we knew, you know, we recognized we put these principles down on paper, sort of our guiding principles. Now we have to follow them to maintain our credibility. And in the past, or prior to this, I don't know as though we would have taken the route that we did, because it was it was a it was tough, you know, and and and that was when I that was when I knew something was really starting to Click. was when we we we went back to what those principles were and we did what we said we were going to do. And and then, and then things really started to click. Christy, you've had a fascinating front lines career in crisis comms. Some might say unlucky, others might say unmatched crisis comms experience. You were at Virginia Tech during an oncampus shooting, at Radford University during the murder of a campus police member. You are at Sweet Briar during their closing and most recently at U and see Charlotte during both and oncampus shooting and throughout the pandemic. Help US learn off your curve. What are some of your biggest crisis comes lessons learned to date? So I would say I'm also trying to figure out where I fall and whether it is excellent experience. Are Really Unlucky that all of those situations I had been, I will add him, very fortunate to work with great people to the situations, and that's what I try to reflect on when I reflect back on those events, the good people I had the great fortune to work with. I would say one of my biggest boons that I learned at Virginia Tech, and I learned it from what you're thinker, who was the associate vice president...

...of university relations and who let us do that crisis, and it is a principle I have career with me and every crisis since then, and I hear it with me to this day, is you can't overcommunicate in a crisis. Despite what some people may say, I would say the crises that I have dealt with, most of them to all and that most of them have been there has been a there's been a serious safety risk in a lot of them and in those moments, information can bring reassurance and calm to chaos and you can't give to people, people too much information. And you know are they're going to be people to say stop with the email, stop with the text mutch messages. Sure they are, but if I have to pick the side to stand down, I'll pick that side as supposed to being accused of not commuting it all, and I will tell you that that is a principle Chris and I both followed pretty intensely during our shooting at Unity Charlotte, which was we were sending out nine our alerts every fifteen, twenty minutes, even while we were still in lockdown, just to reassure people that they were doing the right thing. Say where you are? The lockdown continues. Gay where you are, the lockdown continues, because in those moments fear just takes over and it is our responsibility to try to calm the spears when we do that in communication. So I would definitely say you you can't over community. I would say another one, and this incurs has alluded to this in his who you just said, about really doing what we say you were going to do, even it was hard, and I would say don't wait until a crisis to build your relationship with your campus in your audiences. So they're going to judge you in the big moments based on how you showed up, any small moments. And so if you say you're going to do something, do it. If you say you're going to communicate by a certain time, are really hard to do that? Or other times that we have fallen short? Yeah, there have been. We've tried really hard. So if we say we're going to have another update to you by five o'clock, it may be four hundred and fifty eight when we're smashing that button. But we're going to try to live up to what we said because we know that if something really awful happens, hopefully we will love built with that trust incredibility to help carry us through that. We're going to tell you of the help you know. We're going to say we see the hurricane to even if it's many, many, many, many mini moleth away, because we know that's important to our campus. They want to know that we're watching things too, and so we tell them that because then again, if some of that happens, so also believe what we're telling them. And third, I would say that in a crisis and even before crisis, managing expectations is critical, and I mean that up, down and out. I think it's important that you go into a crisis response with your leadership sort of understanding what's possible and what's not. I think in what Chris and I both do for a lifting, sometimes people can see can fix anything and sometimes that simply not true. Sometimes the we can do is wait for the farm to pass and then just have to clean up. For Chris that's, you know, the goal clean out, sometimes it's for me that might be more of a metaphorical clean up, but I think going in what the understanding of what's going to be possible on the other side of this is really important because when those expectations aren't hopefully aligned in this managed, I think there's opportunities to disappointment on both sides. I love those personal lessons learned. How about in terms of what you have seen the broader landscape of Higher Ed learned in the last two years? Changes that you've seen other institutions make, gaps that you think institutions still haven't caught up with. How did the pandemic really change how higher ed thinks about crisis comes and how we structure and govern for them. Yeah, I mean I think it maybe maybe speaks a little more to the operational side as opposed to the common side, but I think it's maybe maybe applies to both. And you know, one of the...

...things that that was a lasting lesson learned from our shooting on campus and and has proven true time and time again through the pandemic, is you have to be comfortable in making decisions based on the information that you have when you have it, and that things are going to change and things are going to be different and you have to be comfortable operating in that world that what you think at noon on, what you think you know at noon on Tuesday might be different at five on Tuesdays and it will absolutely be different at, you know, noon on Friday and again, you know, on you know, the following week. So that was something that as I thought back on the shooting and after action and lessons learned that you know, quite frankly, I think historically maybe the we haven't done a great job and recognizing as we do after action reports are the decisions that are made in the things that are done are based on the information that you have been. So you have to be a little it can't be too he can't be too hard on yourself on areas to improve in some regards, because you were just making a decision based on what you knew and you thought was fact then, and the the pandemic has absolutely solidified that. For me, it's change. Think of all the twists and turns and changes of things that we have thought we knew definitively or we thought were fact and we've had to change. And that, you know, that makes the communicators, Christy is and others jobs very difficult, because we're we have to we say something and we think we know it and then we've got a change and and I think that's again why it why the trust and the you know, relying on your sort of foundational principles are so important, that your community trusts you and and they know you know, we've got their best interests and we're giving them the best information we can and sometimes that that changes. I would agree with that. I think was howtion covid is the hardest thing any of us has dealt with on so many levels and I think what has made it so hard is that there was no playbook to go by and there was no optunity to call for reinforcements. Yeah, you know, when the shooting on catap and, it was awful and it was aw whole and ways that if you haven't experienced it you will never understand it, and my sincere hope is none of our colleagues ever understand it. Yeah, but there what they playbook of sorts to follow, because unfortunately we weren't the first. There are also reinforcements to call in, because we were the only one defected with covid you know, as I actually said, this is someone. Unfortunately, no one's from the Spanish flu left behind. That to do lest or checking a lot easier for the rest of us, but they didn't. And, moreover, social media didn't exist in the Spanish work. So there was no guide's book to tell any of us how to handle. was how to handle exactly what Chris said. You might what you know at eight am, quite literally, could be different than what you know at eight hundred and eleven am, and it could be that it changed exactly after you hit send on a message. Yeah, and there was no one to call for help because everybody was dealing with it. You know, I mean there's just there was no one to call. You couldn't call for help with the shooting. We had colleagues across the system and it's just your institutions that we call for help.

No one could talk about and that just made it so challenging. But I also hope that what it did, I hope, was force all organizations, whether it was higher at others, to reevaluate the priorityized flights on their coms function, because I think sometimes we're kind of an act for thought and I don't think that's intentional. I think it's just the way it is. Right it's Oh, the decision to May, let's bring in comms and they can go communicate it. And I think we saw an evolution during this pandemic of understanding the importance of the precision of communication, and so I hope it forced organizations nationwide to bring us in to the decision makes you instead of after the decision has been made. I hope that as they shift, we will see. I hope that it is a shift we will see and valueing the strategic nature of what we do. Really wonderful stuff. Finally, any next steps? Advice for institutions currently in the midst of thinking about crisis communications, organization alignments, how to do it better, how to approach the challenge? Where should they start? Starting with Chris. I think Christy at least mentioned it or alluded to it in in some of her earlier remarks. But I think the importance of the people. Then, your people and your team, and I it's you know, it's a bit of a cliche maybe nowadays that you know you're you're an organization's most important resources. It's people. I think that is absolutely true and advice that I would have for organizations or institutions that are better just sort of getting started in this is you have to recognize that and you have to be able to to develop and create these teams or groups of people, keeping in mind that you're probably going to have to look outside of the traditional areas of responsibility to effectively build these teams. So you know, and and and really, I mean we still work on that and are working on that. I mean, Christie and I joke fairly frequently that, you know, the same small core group of people that were, you know, intimately responsible for the operations and Response and recovery from the shooting are the same ones that are carrying the heaviest load over the last couple of years through the pandemic. So you've got a you have to be able to recognize and build bench and back ups and a and a team that can do all the things that need to get done. So and and and in many cases those roles and and functions can be filled by people that are outside of, you know, the traditional, you know, daytoday job functions are responsibility. So, for example, as we were developing our family assistant center plans, you know, we identified another former Virginia Tech Employee who works in our it department but has experienced in crisis. He was actually a police officer and and and has some ems experience. So he works day to day at you and the Charlotte and it but was a just an unbelievably lucky resource for us to identify as our Family Assistant Center manager. So we've tried to sort of uncover,...

...you know, hidden gems within our people to take on roles that are a little outside of their daytoday function or their daytoday titles, but they have the ability to to assist and I think that proved important on, you know, April thirty and is proved important through, you know, through the pandemic as well, because, although it has been difficult, with sort of a you know, there's this core group that that has responsibilities for both. We're way better off having recognized that early on then we would be had we not. So I think recognizing it takes a lot of people to get done all the things that you need to get done and you've got to find, you have to be able to to find, you know, enough people to do that without relying on, you know, the same small group to do everything. You know. I would say Chris and I have presented for pandomical. We're preventing and pretty frequent, a pretty frequent pagents at compos and we're always surprised at the number of people that month to us after and talk about how they already getting started but they don't have a crisis Commons plan. And I think what our advice husband and what certainly mine continues to be, is you can't you have to operate from a place that you assume something really awful is going to happen in your campus, and not because you're trying to speak it into existence, because you know, statistically speaking, it probably won't. But if you're on the bad end of that statistic. It can be real bad right, and so I think you've got to treat your crisis comes plan, your EOP, like an insurance policy. You pay into it and you hope you never need it, but it's better to have and not need it and need it not have it. So I would say work from a place of assuming it's going to happen. And it's so easy to push it off because there's so much on our place right now with everything. But you've got it about the time and you've got it about the resources, and I would say we are very lucky at Your Inc Charlotte, that we have had and continue to have leadership that believes this is important and they invest, you know, resources into making it happen, and that can make all the difference. So having really important conversations go through leadership about why this should be a priority. It's probably step one, right, and then you get the resources, as it's investing as resources to make it happen. But I would say in addition to developing the plan and working is that you're going to need it is processing the plan, and this is a complete credit to Chris and his need. We do exercises, we do full scale exercises. Again, pre pandemic we were well frequently. But it's building that muscle memory. But it's also building next team and open that camaraderie before an actual crisis happened so that when things that happened on our cand but we trust each other and we trusted other skills and we know who's doing what and that makes all the different from the world when you're in the thick of it. So I would say you don't have a plan and get one and if you do have a plan, bracket books. That would be my my key takeaway. Such good stuff. Christy Chris, thank you both so much for your time today. What's the best place for listeners to reach out if they have any foll up questions for you or your team's starting with Christie, I am very easy to find on the UNs Charlotte website. You momy at he jacke one three at unccdded you? Yeah, I would say same thing. Website is got a lot of good information on their emergency dot Charlotte Dot Edu, or you can reach me the email see...

...gn why are at UNCC DOT Etu. Awesome, Christi Chris, thanks so much for joining us today. Thanks, sir. Thank you my pleasure. Attracting today's new post traditional learners means adopting new enrollment strategies. Kelix educations data driven, enterprise wide approach to enrollment growth is uniquely helping colleges and universities thrive in this new education landscape, and Helix has just published the second edition of their enrollment growth playbook with fifty percent brand new content on how institutions can solve today's most pressing enrollment growth challenges. Downloaded today for free at Helix Educationcom. Slash playbook. You've been listening to enrollment growth university from Helix Education. To ensure that you never miss an episode, subscribe to the show in Itunes or your favorite podcast player. Thank you so much for listening. Until next time.

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