Protecting Your Institution’s Brand During Times of Crisis

From sexual assault to conflicts of interest, from controversial speakers to fraternity hazing, every day seems to bring a new scandal to the pages of the Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed. As marketing and communications professionals, we say a little prayer every morning that our institution isn’t the next headline. Maintaining a brand is tough enough on a good day; if a crisis hits, how do we protect the brand that we’ve worked so hard to build?

The good news is that a strong brand has an emotional connection with its constituents that will serve it well even when under duress. Take for instance the Tylenol case back in 1982, a huge crisis management case study. Seven people in the Chicago area died after taking cyanide-laced capsules. Tylenol’s response: recall 31 million bottles from store shelves (something that companies did not do back in those days) and offer a safer replacement. At the time, Tylenol accounted for 17% of Johnson & Johnson’s net income, and some predicted the company wouldn’t survive the recall. But fast forward several decades, and Johnson & Johnson is known as a pharmaceutical powerhouse. Little did the company know then that its swift and honest response to crisis instilled a trust and belief in the brand that lives on today.

Having worked with colleges and universities during and after crises, we find that the same principles that helped Johnson & Johnson survive the 1980s Tylenol scandal apply to higher education crisis management.

Communicate, communicate, communicate.

The worst response to a crisis is to bury your head in the sand and hope not many people will hear or read about it. You can never overcommunicate the steps the institution has taken/is taking to address a crisis situation. In our research, when we have asked respondents if they feel an institution has appropriately and effectively communicated about an incident, we find that they often answer, “don’t know.” To put it bluntly: If they don’t know, you haven’t effectively communicated.

Your constituents are emotionally attached to your brand, and they deserve to know what is happening. A recent Washington Post article about the 2011 Penn State Sandusky scandal quoted the following comment from an alum during a July 2017 board of trustees meeting: “Hundreds of thousands of alumni who care about our past and our future have been deceived and, in the process, disenfranchised.” It’s been six years since the story broke. This  shows not only that it takes time to recover from a crisis but also how important it is to inform your constituents of a problem as expediently as possible and to continue proactive communications that will address the concerns of all your audiences, internal and external. Like the Tylenol case, it is the steps you take during and after the incident that will build your brand back up.

Campus safety is your best asset.

In higher education, any campus incident that happens always makes audiences question their safety. In our research, we find that prospects and their parents are more likely to be concerned with campus safety in general AND even more so after any major incident. Especially moms and parents of females. Consider a communications strategy or even a paid media campaign in targeted markets that boasts not only about campus safety but also the institutional character and culture.

The inside is just as, if not more, important than the outside.

When a crisis hits, the first thing you may be thinking is what do prospects, parents, area residents, counselors, and peers think of the institution, and how do we put together the best traditional and digital communications strategy that will lessen their concerns? In your planning, however, don’t overlook the power of the people who live and breathe your brand every day. Hearing correct information from your students, faculty, staff and alumni is one of the best ways to counteract external misperceptions, so good internal communication is paramount for a successful external campaign. It’s even better when your brand ambassadors can authentically tout the great things the institution is doing to address the situation and maintain a campus culture people want to be a part of.

Building a brand takes a lot of work, and protecting it during a crisis is even harder. In the end, strong brands will survive, and how you handle these situations is what will prevail. For even more advice, visit this SimpsonScarborough blog post written by Simon Barker, managing director of Blue Moon Consulting Group.

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