Debt, Scandal, And Bruised Reputations: Damage Control For Colleges In Crisis

There are strategies that colleges and universities need to embed in their communicative DNA, all of which not only help prevent brand issues from arising, but also ensure an enhanced level of preparedness should a worst-case-scenario emerge.


This weekend, as countless college and university seniors process across the stage to receive their degrees and commence their professional lives, it may be easy to forget the myriad issues that are impacting higher education brands these days.

It’s not just the events that make national news, such as the Virginia Tech massacre, the Penn State football scandal, or the raucous student protests against Gallaudet University’s leadership a few years back. In recent years, we’ve seen lawsuits take aim at schools alleged to have inflated job placement data. We’ve seen campus leaders taken to task for accepting donations from less-than-savory sources. Let’s not even get started on the NCAA, which rarely goes a week without front page headlines that detail some form of alleged recruiting, reporting, or behavioral controversy. And as college tuitions have outpaced inflation by five-fold for the past 25 years, soaring debt has become a high profile issue putting universities on the defensive.

It’s no wonder that campuses from Burlington to Tacoma are scrambling to ensure that they have crisis response plans in place should any of the above issues threaten their reputations. But in an age of unanticipated risks, total transparency, and instant and lasting impressions, a response plan simply isn’t enough to dim the harsh spotlight. Colleges and universities need to take proactive steps that assume control of a potentially damaging narrative before it ever materializes. To that end, there are three strategies that colleges and universities need to embed in their communicative DNA, all of which not only help prevent brand issues from arising, but also ensure an enhanced level of preparedness should a worst-case-scenario emerge.

Be authentic.

When four graduates of Thomas M. Cooley Law School sued their alma mater for allegedly luring them with misleading employment statistics, every institution of higher learning was reminded of the dangers associated with inauthentic marketing. Ten years ago, no one bothered to fact-check a claim that 80 percent of a school’s graduates landed jobs. But in this transparent digital age, students and parents have the tools at their disposal to do so–and they won’t hesitate to take action if they feel they’ve been duped. As such, honesty (as viewed from a critical, outside the ivory castle view) and integrity must be top marketing priorities.

Of course, there’s more to authenticity than not allegedly inflating statistics. It’s about being up front about relationships with potentially controversial donors. It’s about involving community leaders in expansion plans and others activities that impact a school’s surroundings and neighbors. And it’s about making decisions that align with the institution’s educational mission. The Penn State scandal was so troubling not only because of the monstrous allegations levied, but because there was a sense that the school elevated football above the ethics and values the institution was founded on. In this context, authenticity is just as much about a school being true to itself as it is about being true to its students, parents, faculty, and alumni.


Control the narrative.

Today, controlling the narrative means controlling the venues that more people turn to for information than any other–search engines. From a crisis management perspective, this means anticipating likely crisis scenarios; generating a list of key terms stakeholders will use to find information on those issues; and then establishing search engine optimization (SEO) and marketing (SEM) campaigns that enable institutions to highlight communications about their prophylaxis in a non-defensive way. For colleges and universities, such campaigns should support messaging about steps taken to make the campus more secure; the job placement resources available to graduates; or efforts to educate students on the dangers of binge drinking, among a host of other issues.

The goal here is two-fold. First, to inundate audiences with positive messages so that negative news, should it arise, is forced to swim upstream against the already dominant perception. And second, to ensure that the institution’s side of a potentially negative story is available to key audiences at the moment a crisis situation materializes. As such, it is important to note that the SEO and SEM campaigns that support these prophylactic communications include risk terms such as “violence,” “shooting,” “alcohol abuse,” or “fraudulent statistics”–as these are the terms students, parents, media and others will be keying into the search engines when seeking information on events that could damage the institution’s brand.

Embrace social media.

By definition, colleges and universities are institutions comprised of early adopters when it comes to social media. Facebook, Twitter, and a host of other networks are where higher education audiences live today. That means colleges and universities need to maintain an eternal presence in these venues not only as a branding mechanism; but as a risk management function as well.

When reputational risks come to fruition, social networks provide an avenue for direct communication with alumni, donors, and other interested parties that isn’t slowed or skewed by the traditional media filter. In emergency situations that jeopardize campus safety, such conduits are invaluable tools for ensuring that students, faculty, and staff have the information they need at the moment they need it. In the aftermath of any traumatic event, campus stakeholders, media, and even governmental and law enforcement organizations are going to want to know that the institution was able to quickly and comprehensively alert its people and provide the detailed instructions that kept them safe. Today, that means disseminating urgent messages via any and every appropriate digital channel available.


In this age of myriad risks, minute-to-minute news cycles, and increased competition, colleges and universities need to think differently about the ways in which they protect their brands both in times of crisis, and in periods of relative calm. In the digital age, effective crisis management isn’t about response, it’s about taking the proactive steps that build trust and loyalty before crisis visits your campus.

Richard Levick, Esq., president and CEO of Levick Strategic Communications, represents countries and companies in the highest-stakes global communications matters, from the Wall Street crisis and the Gulf oil spill to Guantanamo Bay and the Catholic Church. Mr. Levick was honored for the past three years on NACD Directorship’s list of “The 100 Most Influential People in the Boardroom,” and has been named to multiple professional Halls of Fame for lifetime achievement. He is the co-author of three books, including The Communicators: Leadership in the Age of CrisisFollow him @RichardLevick, where he comments daily on the ways that social and digital media are impacting the marketplace.

[Image: Flickr user Abdullah AL-Naser]

About the author

Richard Levick, Esq. Chairman & CEO of LEVICK, represents countries and companies in the highest-stakes global crises and litigation