5 Ebola School and University Crisis Communications Considerations

5 Ebola Considerations Gerard BraudYour personality type may decide the fate of your crisis communication response if the Ebola crisis touches your school or university. On one extreme is the personality that says, “It’s too soon. Maybe we should watch it and wait and see.” On the other extreme are those who say, “Heck, let’s get prepared. I’d rather be prepared and not need it than to be in the weeds if it hits us.”

If one of your employees or students gets Ebola or is perceived to possibly have Ebola or may have come in contact with an Ebola patient or a place where an Ebola victim has been or has come in contact with a person who came in contact with an Ebola victim, then the crisis now affects you. We’ve already seen schools in Ohio and Oklahoma close or request that students stay home, just for this very reason.

Here are 5 Ebola School Crisis Communication Considerations:

1) The Need is Real

Ebola may touch your school or university because of a person who is actually ill or because of rumors or hysteria. Either option may really happen, forcing you into reactive communications mode. You’ll need solid internal employee communications. You’ll need to communicate to parents. Depending upon the age of your students, you may need to communicate with them. You’ll need external media relations. You’ll need to fight the trolls and naysayers on social media. Why not start planning your strategy and messaging now? My belief and experience is that you can anticipate nearly every twist and turn on a clear sunny day, in order to manage effective communications on your darkest day.

2) Ask for Help

Many school administrators or systems hire one person to manage the image of their school. Often they will hire a marketing specialist, for example, never realizing that marketing is not public relations, media relations, or crisis communications. Fearing reprisal from their leadership, some people in our allied fields would rather try to disguise their lack of knowledge rather than ask for help. The reality is the boss wants you to speak up and say, “I need help. This is beyond my level of expertise.” Most leaders, while never wanting to spend money they don’t have to spend, realize that getting help from an expert could preserve their reputation and revenue. Don’t try to fake it. That will ultimately cost you your job, as well as the school’s reputation and revenue. Never be afraid to say, “I don’t know the answer to that.” Ask for help.

3) Tie Ebola Communications to Cash Outflow and Reputation Damage

Preparing for communications you may or may not need will cost either time or money. It may cost both. But communications preparation can pay for itself.

Here are just a few considerations of doing nothing:

  •  The cost of rumors
  •  The cost of a single case linked back to your school
  •  The cost of a cluster of cases linked back to your school
  •  The cost of becoming synonymous with Ebola
  •  The cost of employee illness and lost productivity
  •  The cost of your school closing

Communications about precautions is step one. It may quarantine patient zero in your school and keep the virus and negative news from spreading, saving you huge sums of money in all of the categories listed above.

4) Plan Now

Don’t wait until you are in the middle of your crisis when you are forced into reactive mode. Proactive mode is the sign of a public relations professional. Now is the time to review your crisis communication plan and to determine if it is Ebola-ready. For some of you, now is the time to write that crisis communications plan that you have never written. Now is also the time to write messaging templates for before, during and after an event. Plus, now is the time to conduct media training for potential spokespeople and to conduct a crisis communications drill. Response should be planned and never reactive.

5) Be Opportunistic

If you haven’t been able to get a seat at the table or get the attention of your boss in the past for crisis communications, consider this your golden opportunity.

Opportunities to discuss crisis communications with the leadership team do not happen often enough. It takes a crisis that hits all schools equally to sometimes get their attention.

The opportunity for crisis communication planning and crisis management planning is upon us because of Ebola. Now is the time to initiate discussions with your school leaders. It is also useful to seek partners from other departments. Human resources, international student services, and residential life departments will all need to manage various portions of this crisis. Each are wonderful partners who may already have a seat at the table and who already may have the knowledge and skill to get the time and money needed to accomplish your tasks.

In the coming week I’ll share more lessons and insight with you. On Friday, October 17, 2014, I hosted a live discussion via webinar. You can listen to the replay for FREE with this link. On November 5 & 6, 2014 I’ll host a workshop in New Orleans that will allow you to create a 50 page crisis communications plan with up to 75 pre-written news releases. You’ll walk out of the workshop with a finished crisis communication plan and the skill to write even more pre-written news releases.

Remember, ask for help. If you need my help, please phone me at 985-624-9976.