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Two years after the FBI’s announcement of the infamous “Operation Varsity Blues sting,” college admissions continues to find itself squarely in the public spotlight. Just recently, Inside Higher Ed reported a new scandal involving international students at institutions including Boston College, Boston University, Columbia University, New York University, the University of Southern California and others. In fact, admissions controversies have and always will be a vulnerability for Higher Ed institutions – one of a number of vulnerabilities that require advance preparation.

The current climate has highlighted the need for rapid response plans and immediately accessible pre-approved communications materials – we call them “Crisis Playbooks” – to ensure an effective response to a crisis. The only way to ensure that your communications team can act with speed and credibility is to prepare these playbooks well in advance and ensure that you have buy-in across the organization. These playbooks include a rapid response plan with key contacts, core messaging, a Q&A section that anticipates tough questions, and a holding statement, with blanks to fill in the details of the incident.

  1. A general list of crises that can impact any organization (i.e., natural disaster, violent act, security breach)
  2. A list of crises that might be specific to your type of organization or industry. For a university, this might include things like a Title IX infraction or a free speech incident
  3. A list of your key constituents and how they will need to be communicated with, and some order of how they will be prioritized

Holding Statement

Too often, in the panicked moments of a crisis, unprepared organizations send out a poorly constructed statement. A key benefit of preparing in advance is the opportunity to carefully consider what key messages you will want to convey, and then ensuring those messages are embedded in a holding statement template that can be readily adapted to the facts of a particular event. While situations vary greatly, the key messages for many crises often fall into the following pattern:

  • Empathize: Express empathy, concern for any victims (e.g., injured, sick, rendered homeless, etc.)
  • Inform: A summary of the facts as you know them, explicitly recognizing that you are in the early stages and are continuing to acquire new information. If it is too early to offer even a summary, “process is your friend” – explain what you will be doing to learn more and to mitigate the problem, and say when you expect to be able to provide an update.
  • Thank and (if appropriate) reassure: Thank first responders and others who may be helping or in harm’s way, including your own employees. If appropriate, express optimism or reassurance about recovery.

Here is an example to give you an idea of what can be left blank, and what can be written in advance:

The aftermath of the [storm, earthquake, etc.] has affected _____________, the site of one of our facilities. At this time, we are working with local authorities to assess the situation and will provide communications updates when new information becomes available.
Our first and greatest concern is for the well-being of all those affected by this event. We are doing all that we can to ensure their safety.
We have made a series of investments over the last few years to protect our employees and the general public, including the retention of expert security and public health and safety officials at each of our locations, (Add further detail around drills and protocols related to specific natural disasters – fire, earthquake, hurricane, etc.)


This holding statement can then be stress tested through crisis simulations and updated as the organization and the landscape it operates in evolves. These statements are only beneficial if they are usable at a moment’s notice, so maintaining their relevancy should be a high priority.

Many organizations make the mistake of not having these statements on hand and have no choice but to take the time to draft messaging and get approval from internal stakeholders, including the legal team, before notifying the public. In this time, it becomes more likely that the vacuum of information will be filled by speculation and accusations that you will have to compete with. Moreover, a statement drafted in haste is less likely to be effective than one that was given careful consideration.

Putting Playbooks into Practice Creatively

Standby statements and Q&As are purposefully one-dimensional content. They will open the door to communicating with audiences throughout the crisis and answer upfront concerns. But these pieces of content alone won’t effectively engage your audiences and save your organization from its current predicament. Crisis playbooks will set the “north star” so that your creative team can jump in and begin finding the most impactful ways of telling your story and effectively communicating your key messages.

Rich, advanced content such as infographics and videos will tend to be more engaging to your audiences and can almost always be prepared in advance. Here are a few excellent examples of companies that found ways to make their crisis communications shareable and incredibly relevant:

  • In advance of the 2013 hurricane season, Chevron invited journalists out to offshore oil rigs to show what they were doing to get ready for impending weather. When news outlets reported on the hurricanes, they used B-roll footage provided by Chevron during the trips.
  • When United Airlines prepared to welcome passengers back to flying during the COVID-19 pandemic, they released their “What to Expect When You Fly” protocols along with illustrations that tell the story of how United is keeping individuals safe during their travels.
  • When Disney World in Orlando, FL re-opened its gates to visitors during COVID-19, they created an engaging “Know Before You Go” video that outlined the resorts’ safety policies.

When it comes to filling the void of information that is created when a crisis occurs, the organization or source that creates the most compelling content will almost always win. Ensuring that you have creative materials prepared in advance will enable you to focus on communicating with audiences in the most timely manner.