Forward planning and strong communication can make all the difference when handling a crisis, says Jessica Rees-Jones, Executive Director of Inyathelo (The South African Institute for Advancement).
There’s nothing new about student protests (look to French universities in 1968 and Britain in the 1980s), but the advent of social media means that matters which could previously be contained relatively easily, are now unpredictable.
Mix a volatile situation with social media chatter and emotionally-attached alumni, and a reputational crisis can hit any tertiary education institution. A controversial decision or scandal may develop into a larger story which can cause donors and alumni to protest and withhold funding. South Africa’s 26 universities, with one million students’ futures at stake, cannot afford to be unprepared for the inevitable crises that will strike them.
It is important to look at a crisis through three lenses ‒ a before, during and after focus ‒ as there are different strategies to employ in each of these times.
Before the crisis
There’s the international example of Brexit ‒ we are still getting to grips with it, but know its impact will be huge. Another example is the long-term impact of South Africa’s downward credit rating (junk status) on government funding of student fees. The big question is when – not if – South Africa drops out of some widely-used global bond indices and international funds are withdrawn. Some 22% of all foreign investment in South Africa will immediately have to exit the country. Universities need to plan ahead and have a clear strategy on how to be resilient, as the amount of money allocated to international debt payments will increase, leaving less for government to spend on education.
During a crisis
An example is the #FeesMustFall student-led protest movement. Such a situation requires being extremely nimble. If there has been forward planning, there will be established policies to fall back on. Clear communication and credibility are essential. Some tried and tested rules of engagement for when a crisis breaks are:
Take a moment to figure out what’s going on.
Act promptly, not hurriedly.You can act with deliberateness as well as speed. Or as Mountbatten advised, “Be quick, but don’t hurry.”
- Manage expectations. When trouble strikes, people want it to be over right now — but seldom is this kind of quick resolution possible. It falls to the leader in charge to address the size and scope of the crisis. You don’t want to alarm people, yet do not be afraid to speak to the magnitude of the situation.
- Demonstrate control.When things are happening quickly, no one may have control, but a leader can assume control. That is, you do not control the disaster — be it man-made or natural — but you can control the response.
- Keep loose.Not only does this apply to personal demeanour (you can never afford to lose composure) it applies to the leader’s or institution’s ability to adapt rapidly. A hallmark of a crisis is its ability to change quickly; your first response may not be your final response. In these situations, a leader cannot be wedded to a single strategy. You must continue to take in new information, listen carefully and consult with the frontline experts who know what’s happening.
Post a crisis
This is the time to turn bad news into constructive story-telling and lessons learned. There are several prominent examples where leading British and American universities experienced crisis of confidence in the midst of important fund-raising campaigns. Causes ranged from accepting gifts from regimes accused of terrorism links, to assault on campus.
- Durham University accepted £125,000 from British American Tobacco, overruling its ethics committee and communications office. In 2011 there were protests from staff, alumni and public health charities;
- University of Virginia: In the midst of a $3b fundraising campaign, the university had to deal with rape allegations, a student murder, and the removal and comeback of its first female President;
- Penn State University: In Nov 2011, an assistant football coach was involved in a child sexual abuse trial, in the middle of a $2b “For the Future” campaign;
- The London School of Economics (LSE): The University’s director resigned in 2011 after revelations that the institution had been involved in a £2.2m deal to train hundreds of young Libyans to become part of the country’s future elite.
Despite these seemingly crushing challenges, the universities were able to handle the crises sufficiently well that not only alumni, but new supporters, donated and there was an uptick in funding. At the University of Virginia, by December 2014, cash flow from gifts was up by 32% and new gifts were up by 26%; in April 2015 the LSE attracted a £30m gift to establish the Marshall Centre for Philanthropy. At Durham, by September 2012 income was down to £1,3m annually. It is now consistently around £11m annually and this year reached £14m.
Each of these institutions was able to turn the situation around because of strong leadership, effective policies and ‒ most importantly ‒ authentic, credible and frequent communication to build relationships and boost their brands. A crisis, if handled well, can have a successful outcome. There can be an upside with proper planning and implementation.
Inyathelo, with its partners, is helping to grow a skilled cadre of Advancement practitioners in universities – where Advancement refers to the integration, within an organisation or institution, of communication, marketing, public liaison, external relations and other factors essential to long-term financial sustainability. Planning how to handle a crisis (whether it’s the slow-burning type or unexpected flare-up) is a vital component of professional Advancement management.