Media and Crisis Management
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Media and Crisis Management

Leaders Must be Crisis ManagersToo

Posted on: July 28th, 2012

Crisis Management: Leaders Must be Crisis ManagersTooCrisis leadership

Leading a college or university just isn’t what it used to be!  Virginia Tech’s mass shootings, Guilford College’s Palestinians/football players fight, and Duke’s lacrosse case make it clear:  presidents must worry about more than improving education and increasing endowments.  They have to be prepared to manage reputation-threatening and even life-threatening crises.

The respected Chronicle of Higher Education emphasized this reality in May 2008 with an article ominously titled “Wanted: Crisis President.”  It said, “…higher education observers say crisis management continues to grow in importance among the skills that institutions look for in their presidents”, that “search committees will put an increasingly higher value” on those skills, and that disaster training is climbing higher on the to-do lists of presidents and their aides.     The article said higher education leaders need to be more media savvy, act more like CEO’s, and must make their institutions move as fast as corporations, the military, and other big institutions.

Search firm professional Jan Greenwood dissented by saying crisis skills were not specifically sought by her clients, but nevertheless said institutions “hire presidents with leadership skills that could apply to emergency situations.”

However you figure it, common sense says higher education leaders (and leaders everywhere) should have crisis teams, rapid notification systems and plans at the ready.   24/7 news and instant interpersonal communications can make road-kill of a respected organization in a blink.

And yet, while preparation is essential, based on my experience in a number of challenging higher education situations, I am coming to believe that crisis prep is only as effective as the leader.  Without someone at the top who’s incisive, decisive, quick-thinking, and bold, then all the rest can be window-dressing.

In his current book Damage Control author Eric Dezenhall hammers this point. “Our collective plan-worship is as absurd as waiting for Godot.  Here’s the harsh reality: all the planning in the world doesn’t address the reality that God, Faith, Fortune, Lady Luck – name your belief system – has reviewed your crisis management plan and will make sure to visit a scenario upon you that wasn’t anticipated.”  “… if given the choice between a thorough plan and a good leader, go with the leader…”

I believe the order of importance is: good leader, good team, good plan (drill-tested).

The best way to put this into perspective is to look at what a higher education client and I deduced after we unsnarled a months-long nasty situation that drew national, even international interest.  The crisis team (including me) sat around a table and debriefed the crisis.  What worked.  What didn’t.

We identified success factors that included, in descending order of importance:

  1. Strong, clear leadership from the president
  2. Strong statement from president that there would be no rush to judgment
  3. Clear responsibilities for team members
  4. Transparency of action
  5. Decisiveness
  6. Follow-through
  7. No infighting or territoriality
  8. Not getting ahead of facts
  9. Constant internal communications
  10. Enduring criticism while staying the course.

A close look at that list reveals that the president drove the most important actions and principles.  Several times during this crisis I shuddered to think what would be happening without that top-down drive toward problem-solving.  The leader also had this uncanny knack for defusing tension with humor even when I knew his worry was high and sleep at a premium.

I don’t know if you can teach that kind of leadership, but those who run colleges and universities must have those qualities when the noose is tightening.  Likewise, for all responsible for the well-being of others.

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