Through the Darkness

These are different days. We already had our share of challenges to manage, but then a worldwide pandemic appeared out of nowhere. Jonathan Bernstein and his team at Bernstein Crisis Management have seen their fair share of crisis—at least the ones you can anticipate. “In my 35 years of experience, 95% of the crises to which we’ve responded have been, in the wisdom of hindsight, completely preventable,” says Bernstein, president of the crisis management firm.

As schools get back to business, higher education leaders must have crisis management strategies in place to manage their reputations when things go awry. In the world of higher ed, that could be anything.

Take the situation at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, where some 800 applicants to the school’s elite master’s program for computer science rejoiced when they were accepted, only to find they received erroneous acceptance emails. The emails were sent on a Monday, and by midday Tuesday, its crisis management messaging was in place.

“While the school’s message was concise, apologetic and expressed compassion, you can’t help but feel for those affected,” says Bernstein Crisis Management VP Erik Bernstein. “The issue isn’t going to put a major dent in the school’s reputation, but it’s certainly an example of the trouble a flawed process can create for your organization.”

Most universities are going to face a PR crisis at some point and COVID-19 is just another can of worms. So preparing for the inevitable is a good first step. That is why Everett L. Jackson, Director of the Las Vegas Office for Prospective Students at University of Nevada, Reno, recommends considering common crises related to higher education and discussing how to respond. Create a crisis management team to develop these plans and identify who will keep key individuals up-to-date during the situation. Examine how your campus delivers crisis-related information to internal and external constituencies. 

“As the old saying goes, ‘If you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready,'” Jackson says. “Depending upon the crisis itself and the institution’s subsequent response, recruitment could be crippled for years as the ineffective response to a crisis has evolved into a full-blown reputation, deservedly so or not.”

“Information, whether accurate or not, travels quickly through social media and the internet. While the tendency is to react quickly, it’s important to gather the facts before making an extensive statement.”

Everett L. Jackson, University of Nevada, Reno

The potential negative consequences are clear-cut: Ineffective crisis management stains, misrepresents and colors the strongest messages of the institution. Still, Jackson believes that throughout any crisis there is an opportunity for the institution to learn, grow and even use these “lessons learned” in future marketing campaigns. “This, of course, depends on the successful management of the initial crisis and the subsequent adoption of new policies or procedures,” he says.


When the worst of the worst happens, PJ Woolston believes the best thing a school can do is to contextualize. Step back for just a second, take a deep breath and remember that this is not as bad as it seems. He says that the best thing a campus community can do is figure out the best way to get through the situation, together.

“The funny thing about a crisis is that irrespective of the spectrum or industry, or even what the stakes are, any crisis feels dire and overwhelming,” says Woolston, VP for Enrollment Management at Marian University Indianapolis. “Probably the most important thing in handling public relations in the wake of a crisis is a unified front across the campus, and a tone of calm and reason in communicating that unity.”

The next immediate step should always be a personal recommitment to all of the people who were affected, the team you are working with who will be navigating the crisis, and those who are affected whom you will be working to reassure.

“Many people are going to be addressing the situation, and regardless of whether it is admission counselors, the public relations specialist, or the president of the school, the message needs to be the same,” Woolston says. “Do not forget that the concerns you are addressing are real and legitimate. It is important not to overreact, but equally important not to underreact or marginalize the concerns of the people you are working to reassure. Finding the appropriate level of reaction is a fine balance to maintain.”

The most important thing to avoid is to start pointing fingers. Woolston says that is not only counterproductive, but can also exacerbate the situation by undermining the confidence of the people working to control the situation.

“The best perspective to maintain in any situation is the idea that you can fix anything,” Woolston says. “Your team needs to huddle up and find the balance between addressing the needs of the immediate term (both maximizing the class and making any relevant adjustments to the fiscal model) and the long term (addressing the real underlying issue).”

“The best perspective to maintain in any situation is the idea that you can fix anything.”

PJ Woolston, Marian University Indianapolis

Communication is the key component. Can you reach out to students on a one-on-one basis to alleviate their concerns about the situation? Are you addressing the issues, whether it’s safety, diversity or policy? Are prospective students aware of the resources available to students related to the crisis? Are you communicating openly and successfully with “decision influencers” such as parents, teachers and counselors?

All crisis management-related plans should have a very clear set of procedures outlined for members of the crisis management team, covering both operational and communications needs. There is no set playbook; procedures must be customized to each university’s needs.