With the various factors (the pandemic, the recent election, social unrest, etc.) roiling the nation, reputation management and crisis management have never been more important in higher education.

Over the past six months, most institutions have managed to pivot their operations to deal with the pandemic. However, there probably will be more mergers in the future due to enrollment declines this year along with the upcoming enrollment cliff. Additionally, the speed of change that has been accelerated by the pandemic and social unrest also means that universities and colleges have to remain aware of their image to survive.

This podcast features Bill Coletti, the CEO of Kith. His company has worked with a number of institutions, including large universities who faced outcries due to sexual harassment challenges as well as institutions that are undertaking mergers.

Four A’s of Reputation Management

There are four A’s of reputation management, which describes a process that institutional leaders can use:

  • Before going on a reputation management journey, you need to be self-aware and aware of what matters to your most important (and influential) stakeholders – that is, the needs of those who matter the most to you. For example, is sexual harassment a real issue or is it governance or gender issues?
  • Ask important stakeholders for their opinions to learn what they are thinking. This allows you to tap into both internal and external courts of public opinion.
  • You can’t go on a reputation management journey unless you have buy-in from the board, the president, or the institution’s shared governance model.
  • Having completed the first three A’s, the final A–taking action–is designed to move the levers of reputation.

The goal in these situations is to move fast, but don’t break things. Higher education institutions are large complex organizations and must be mindfully changed. This approach is aligned with Warren Buffett’s philosophy instead of Mark Zuckerberg’s model at Facebook. However, this approach doesn’t mean paralysis by analysis; instead, it encourages leaders to take a thoughtful perspective.

Types of Risks

Higher education institutions face a number of different risks that could be previously categorized as:

  • Strategic risk, which involves things that the institution plans to do, such as opening a new campus or go online. This risk is created through a superior strategic objective and is designed to grow the enterprise.
  • Preventable risk, which an institution should have zero tolerance for. This includes sexual harassment by a faculty to a student, crime and violence on campus, and racism.
  • External risks, which are outside the institution’s control. While the institution can put procedures in place, it cannot control these situations, like when an active shooter brings a gun on campus.

However, there also is a whole new construct emerging, i.e., social risk, which are risks that directly impact populations and groups. While higher education is acutely aware of strategic, preventable and external risks, social risks are a new frontier that may cause colleges and universities to stumble. Therefore, presidents and boards need to think about this next frontier of risks instead of the “3 F’s”: facility, football and faculty.

Through awareness and assessment, institutions can determine where they stand on issues such as “Black Lives Matter,” whether that’s the formal group or the concept. LBGT issues also may reemerge soon given the recent election.

Preparing for a Crisis

To successfully navigate these social risks, higher education institutions will need to make thoughtful decisions based on values. These conversations should happen sooner while things are calm rather than later when the institution is in the middle of a crisis.

Leadership is critical – there is no on-the-job training for large crisis events. Instead, these situations often become soul-baring moments when the core nature of institutional leaders is revealed. The remedy is to be very clear about what the leader and the institution stand for, and maintain a high level of EQ.

The key differentiator in these moments is speed – how fast are you able to respond to fill the vacuum. The challenge is that, thanks to smartphones, everyone has a camera and audio recorder readily available so everyone becomes a reporter. The equation to get fast is: Clear Mission and Values + Clear Chain of Command = Speed.

Leaders should regularly practice scenarios and conduct crisis simulations to exercise the team in preparing to meet reputational challenges. Leaders need to accept that faculty are going to weigh in during a crisis. Simulations allow the leadership team to model what a situation will look like, predict what faculty and others may say, and then determine potential next moves and responses. If leaders have done the work to identify who matters most and are always communicating and engaging with these individuals, they shouldn’t face surprises.

While it is a good strategy to have a policy of only one institutional spokesperson in a time of crisis, people’s definition of “crisis” will differ. Most people can embrace the policy when there are external events, such as an active shooter, weather event, natural disaster, etc. However, crises of our own making make, e.g., a vote of no confidence in the president / board, etc., this policy hard to enforce. Everyone will have an opinion and can’t wait to express it to the media.

Who serves as the spokesperson should depend on the situation. At the end of the day, the president is responsible for the functioning of the institution and represents the institution as the CEO. While this person is the first line of defense, an institution can use others, such as a provost or dean, or the board chair. Using a lesser level in the chair of command rings fence the crisis but keep the president, who is the institution’s most important spokesperson, on the sideline.

Four Recommendations for Higher Education Leaders

Coletti suggested four takeaways for higher education leaders:

  • Recognize that speed is imperative.
  • Consider what the institution stands for (e.g., mission and values, what does the institution really believes in) as well as what the leader believes in. How will these permeate the organization?
  • Identify a chain of command. Who are the critical decision-makers when the time comes? How does this chain of command respect the individuals working in the C-suite, the institution’s shared governance model and policymakers?
  • Pull out The Chronicle of Higher Education or The Wall Street Journal to find examples of crises. Begin to regularly ask, “If this happened to us, what would we do?”

Bullet Points

  • The four A’s–awareness, assessment, authority, and action–should guide an institution’s reputation management efforts.
  • Three common types of risk include strategic risk (what the institution plans to do), preventable risk (areas such as racism or violence on campus that should never be condoned), and external risk (situations that the institution has no control over).
  • Social risks are a new frontier that may cause colleges and universities to stumble in maintaining a reputation. These risks can include responses to Black Lives Matter or working with LBGT populations.
  • To successfully navigate these social risks, higher education institutions will need to make thoughtful decisions based on values.
  • These crisis situations often become soul-baring moments when the core nature of institutional leaders is revealed. Leaders need to be very clear about their values as well as what the institution stands for. Leaders also need to maintain a high level of EQ in these situations.
  • The equation to get fast is: Clear Mission and Values + Clear Chain of Command = Speed.
  • Leaders should regularly practice using scenarios and crisis simulations to prepare the team to meet reputational challenges. This enables everyone to understand their role in a crisis and also to anticipate what may happen so they can consider an appropriate response.
  • The choice of spokesperson will depend on the situation. However, at the end of the day, the institution’s president is the CEO and often will serve in this role.

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