Can crisis communications help struggling universities?

By Jim Preen

Director of Crisis Management at YUDU Sentinel

It’s a torrid time to be at college. Students are suffering and universities are struggling with their duty of care. Could crisis comms be the answer?

For students, many of whom are away from home for the first time, university life has presented quite a challenge. Reese Chamberlain, studying at Edinburgh University, told the BBC that students who are self-isolating are being forced to call security begging for food. He said he and others were ‘feeling abandoned.’

A Twitter account linked to Edinburgh students posted photos of out-of-date food being delivered to those in quarantine.

Covid confusion

Students are also reporting confusion over their university’s response to Covid outbreaks.

Natasha Kutscheruk, at Manchester University, said the initial lockdown “caused a lot of panic”, and the university “should have been prepared and organised before sending out an email saying we are locked down”.

At Manchester Metropolitan University more than 1,700 students were told to self- isolate for a fortnight after 127 tested positive for the virus. For them, quarantine happened fast.

Joe Byrne said: “We have had no warning, support or advice from the university about how we get food etc, and instead have been left completely in the dark and practically locked up against our will.”

Tom and Phoebe, two students at the same university who were self-isolating didn’t feel safe in their halls of residence with what they termed ‘wild parties’ taking place nearby. Tom said there were people outside shouting: ‘we’ve got coronavirus we want to give it to you.’ Phoebe added: “It was quite scary, we had no security on the inside”.

Parents feel out of the loop

On top of this there are worried parents who feel out of the loop. Yvonne Nobis posted on Twitter: ‘What is the policy in relation to university students attending university in person, and Covid? What is the point in taking our children to university to sit in lockdown in University halls?  I would like an answer please.’

With many students not receiving face-to-face tuition there are now inevitably demands for financial compensation. Some also want a refund on their accommodation charges as many could have stayed home and worked remotely.

Unquestionably, some places of learning are struggling to fulfil their duty of care, which is their key legal responsibility to students. Add worried parents and the fact that Covid-19 is on the march once more and you have a combustible mix. Like so many organisations, colleges are dealing with a problem they’ve never seen before and are struggling to fix.

Crisis management

It might be helpful to look at the challenges they face from a crisis management or crisis communication perspective. A cursory glance at the students and parents quoted above, show that communications have often been slow and unsatisfactory. Universities need to get on the front foot.

To achieve this, they have to establish clear lines of communication with all their stakeholders and come armed with the knowledge that comms is no longer top down, it’s not a one-way street anymore.

Universities must keep students updated with timely and consistent messaging, but in return students must have the ability to voice their concerns and raise questions with the knowledge these will be listened to and acted upon. This may require a specific crisis comms channel that allows for multi-way communication. As we’ve seen, some of the students involved in the lockdowns are vulnerable and will want absolute assurance that any issues they raise will reach the right audience and be kept in strict confidence.

Sending students into quarantine at a moment’s notice and posting security guards outside halls of residence are unlikely to win hearts and minds and will do little to alleviate concerns. Similarly, if students are going hungry the solution is not to have them going to security begging for food.

Social media

On both old and new media, colleges are seeing their reputations shredded.

Students are making full use of social media to vent their anger and the BBC is constantly reporting the story. None of it will make for happy reading among Vice Chancellors.

Responding to the situation Scotland’s First Minster Nicola Sturgeon said: “The responsibility of universities to look after the welfare of students who are in a self-isolating situation is paramount and there’s no excuse for universities not doing that properly and getting it right.”

To get it right, colleges need to double down on communications, and have a plan to escalate updated information safe in the knowledge that it will reach its intended audiences in a timely manner. They need to become a source of truth as well as supplying helpful practical advice and must provide a feedback loop for all their stakeholders.

Universities don’t have a lot of time to get this right, but If they are to protect their reputations, they must do it fast.

The BBC has consistently been across this story and the majority of quotes from students are taken from their reports.

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