Procedure Number: 18 Effective Date: October 19, 2010
Title: Crisis Communications Plan Revised:
Approval Date: October 19, 2010 President’s Signature:  on file  

STATEMENT:

Objectives

  • To provide accurate, factual, and timely information to students, employees and the public in crisis/time critical circumstances.
  • To ensure that messages delivered during a crisis are consistent with the values and mission of West Liberty University.
  • To ensure that official communications from West Liberty University are uninterrupted, regardless of circumstances.
  • To provide an emergency response/crisis communications website (including printable checklists) to process information needed by students, staff, and faculty readily available in the event of a crisis that impacts West Liberty University.

Plan Synopsis

West Liberty University’s crisis communications plan outlines the roles, responsibilities, and protocols that will guide the institution in promptly sharing information with all its constituencies during an emergency or other crisis. The constituencies for this plan include undergraduates and graduate students, faculty, staff, board of governors, alumni, parents, neighbors, town officials, media, the Town of West Liberty and surrounding community, and state and federal officials.

This plan is a part of the University’s overall Critical Incident Response Plan, coordinated through a designated Emergency Director and operated by the Office of Campus Police, which oversees the implementation of the Critical Incident Response Plan.

The West Liberty Office of Communications (OOC) is responsible for promulgating and implementing the Crisis Communications Plan.  Our guiding principle will be to communicate facts as quickly as possible, updating information regularly as circumstances change, to ensure the safety of the West Liberty community and the continued operation of essential services.

Efforts to be simultaneously accurate and quick may mean that some communications are incomplete.  We accept this, knowing that how we communicate in an emergency or a crisis will affect public perceptions of the University.  We additionally accept this in that in a crisis it is crucial to pass along the most crucially needed information with a commitment to distribute more details as available.  Honesty and speed are the most effective means to avoid lasting damage to the institution and widespread second-guessing by the public, which expects immediate access to accurate information.  Of note, in a crisis people likely will expect us to have more information than we may actually have. That makes it imperative to speak with accuracy about what we know and NOT to speculate about details we do not know.

The Office of Communications will use multiple media to reach as many people as possible with accurate and timely information. This is especially important in the first hours and days of an emergency or a crisis. Our goal is to be open, accountable, and accessible to all audiences, although mindful of legal and privacy concerns.

For the purposes of this plan, a crisis is defined as a significant event that prompts significant, often sustained, news coverage and public scrutiny and has the potential to damage the institution’s reputation, image or financial stability. A crisis could be precipitated by an emergency or a controversy. An emergency is a fire, hurricane, crime that presents an ongoing threat or other event that involves a response from police, fire or emergency medical personnel. A controversy could be student protests or employee misconduct.

Putting the Plan into Action

The Crisis Communications Team will convene when the Emergency Director or his/her designee officially declares an emergency.  In the event of an ongoing threat, the Clery Act requires universities to make timely notifications to the campus community.  Our goal is to make initial notification within 30 minutes of the declaration of an emergency.  Depending on the nature of the emergency or crisis, it may not be possible for the Critical Incident Response Team, the Emergency Director or his/her designee to convene or make quick decisions. Given the urgency of rapid communications, the Executive Director of the Office of Communications has the authority to begin taking action immediately, in consultation with the Emergency Director (or his/her designee), or an Executive Vice President, until a broader decision can be made about how the University should proceed.  Additionally, any member of the faculty or staff who identifies a potential crisis or controversy that is not an immediate emergency should contact the Executive Director of the Office of Communications.  The Executive Director may then assemble the Team to prepare a communications strategy – again, as part of a coordinated university response.  If the Executive Director identifies a more immediate response is needed, he/she may do so in consultation with the Emergency Director and/or an executive level member of the West Liberty University administration.

Once senior administrators do meet and have the opportunity to determine whether the University is facing a crisis, execution of this plan can be adjusted accordingly.

The Crisis Communications Team is includes:

  • President, West Liberty University
  • Emergency Director | Executive Vice President and General Counsel
  • Executive Vice President | Chief Administrative Officer | Provost
  • Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer
  • Executive Director, Office of Communications
  • Dean of Students
  • Director of Alumni Relations
  • Media Relations Specialist

The Executive Director of Communications or his/her designee will add other team members, as appropriate under the circumstances.  The Executive Director of Communications will (and/or through the help of an assistant) contact each member by phone and/or email to convene immediately.

The Crisis Communications Team headquarters for most crises will be the 1st floor conference room of Shaw Hall (next to Campus Police office).  The conference room and/or neighboring Campus Police office shall be equipped with wireless Internet, cell phones and batteries, laptop computers, radio communications, and conference call capabilities for members who can’t attend emergency meetings.  A full series of document templates for press packets, press identification badges, parking passes, and copies of this plan will be maintained within a Communications Office Google Docs repository for quick access (by all members of OOC staff).  In the event that a crisis has caused Internet and/or other communications to be down or inoperable, a document repository shall be maintained on an external drive stored in the Campus Police office.  An immediate strategy for dissemination of important crisis information shall be developed under the leadership of the Executive Director of Communications and shall then be invoked.

The back-up location for operations will be the Boyle Conference Room in the ASRC.  The team may move its headquarters to the ASRC in a number of circumstances, including technical problems at the Shaw location or a need to be in close proximity to the news media if they are set up at the Academic Sports and Recreation Center.

What the Crisis Communications Team is Expected To Do

The Crisis Communications Team will implement some or all of the steps outlined below based on the circumstances, coordinating with the Critical Incident Response Team.  Throughout a crisis, the team will meet frequently to review changing facts, assess whether key messages are reaching audiences, and determine whether strategies need to change. Success of this plan rests on open and frequent communications between the Critical Incident Response Team and the Crisis Communications Team.

The team will carry out these tasks:

  • Designate a secretary who can maintain meeting notes, to-do lists, and information files on the ongoing crisis and other items.
  • Document and review known facts – including facts that can and cannot be released to the public — and determine whether a response is needed and if that response is needed for all of the University’s constituencies. These facts are necessary for the timely creation of news releases, text messages, and other items as necessary.  A list of potential crises is included in this plan’s appendix, along with a list of audiences and who will be responsible for coordinating communications to each.  It is critical as a crisis develops for fact sheets to be continually updated (timeline capture).
    • These fact sheets can be used to update and/or disseminate information via: websites, emails, news releases, TopperNet, and other communication channels.  They will also help guide the team’s overall strategy as events unfold.
  • Develop several key messages that will be included in all university communications during a crisis.  One message typically will address strategies West Liberty is enacting to ensure the safety of students and other community members.  Another may need to be forward-looking and address what we are doing to ensure the crisis or problem doesn’t happen again due to invoked strategies.  All messages should evolve as circumstances change.  The Team shall always aim to restore and maintain confidence and calm, balancing a sense of concern with resolve and action.  Sample messages are included in the approved templates.
  • Determine who will act as spokespeople – The President is the official spokesperson for the institution during a crisis and has ultimate authority when dealing with or responding to circumstances as a result of a crisis.  The President, at his/her discretion, may defer to a senior administrator of the University to serve as the public face of the University during a crisis.  The Executive Director of Communications will run briefings and handle media questions between such formal press gatherings.

The Executive Director of Communications (or his/her designee) will communicate key messages and emerging facts to any designated spokespeople and handle any last-minute media training. It is critical that senior administrators have copies of the most recent news releases and other messages so everyone is clear on what is being shared with the public.

In a time of emergency, it is critical for a high-ranking administrator of the University – in most cases, the President – to be the University’s public face and take the lead in communicating key messages and answering questions.  Such action illustrates that the situation is under control and that efforts are being made to address any questions that have arisen.  It also serves to calm various audiences. As the situation evolves, the administrator acting as the key spokesperson may change.

The Executive Director of Communications will assign responsibilities to members of the Crisis Communications Team in order to communicate the facts of a crisis and our response to key audiences.  Each member will use approved messages and templates for this effort.  Whenever possible, the first groups that should be informed about a crisis are those directly affected, such as students, employees, faculty, and Board of Governors.  The next groups typically would include parents, alumni, community leaders, and other audiences, as well as the media.

Managing the Flow of Information


Web Response

OOC will use West Liberty Office of Communications webpage and WL News (on the homepage) as a primary source of updates, linking other pages that provide detailed information.  OOC also may create special pages or sites about a situation, linking to these from WestLiberty.edu.

OOC will develop a template for a crisis website with limited navigation, message boards, and other features that can be utilized as needed.  It also has developed a “lite” homepage. Other possible online steps may include removing Flash features, taking down images, or seeking backup web support from West Liberty University’s internet service provider (ISP) to ensure that download speeds and web effectiveness remain acceptable in the face of potentially increased traffic demands due to crisis.

The Executive Director of OOC, working with the OOC Web communications manager (in consultation with the Office of Information Technology if necessary), will have responsibility for overseeing all Web oriented changes and needed updates.

Media Information/Phone Traffic

  • Assign communicators, as needed, to handle phone calls.  If needed, these calls will be managed using a script developed from the key messages and facts the Crisis Communications Team has developed.  These staffers should reach out to other units that handle multiple calls during a crisis, including Student Affairs, Admissions, and other departments as determined.  These employees also will monitor and update the recorded message on university hotline(s).
  • Maintain a separate log of calls and interview requests from members of the media.  These staffers will be responsible for ensuring that all calls are returned.
  • Our policy is always to be as responsive as possible to news media. During a crisis, it is important to maintain an organized log of interview requests so that calls are returned promptly. It is imperative that the media be apprised of key messages and facts.
  • Develop communications for the President, as appropriate.  The Executive Director of Communications or a designated communicator will draft presidential correspondence and other written materials, such as talking points, speeches, or op-eds.
  • Be prepared to open a crisis response media center and determine whether press conference(s) should be held.  During most news events, news reporters and photographers are allowed to interview members of the West Liberty community in the Boyle Conference Room in the ASRC.  During a severe crisis or in severe weather, the media should be directed to a site in Shaw Hall near Campus Police and the Office of Communications.  As noted, OOC also may use other rooms for press events.

OOC’s media relations specialist will be responsible for opening this facility, bringing needed supplies from the OOC (including identification badges, parking passes, media guidelines, and press packets), and determining a schedule for 24-hour staffing if necessary.  The media relations specialist will work with the Executive Director to coordinate press conferences (including arranging needed equipment, such as microphones, backdrop, etc.) and compile related media advisories.

If an emergency requires the opening of a media center, the University must treat equipping this center – with such items as tables and chairs – as a high priority.  Some emergencies may require that this media center remain open 24 hours a day for an indefinite period.  Should that occur, the Executive Director of Communications has the authority to use communicators from around the University for staffing.  In such a situation, no single person can or should be expected to work around the clock.  The Executive Director may recruit other senior-level communicators to help manage the facility and assist the OOC in answering media requests.

  • Assign an OOC staffer to monitor media coverage to anticipate any problems in the way information is flowing to the news media. OOC shall have a system for daily monitoring of print coverage, broadcast media and blogs, and that system will be put to use for this effort.  Daily summaries of relevant media coverage will be provided to the University’s senior leadership and Crisis Communications Team.
  • It will be critical to be aware of how the University is being portrayed in early and ongoing coverage to adjust the communications response as needed to limit rumors, correct errors, and maintain confidence in the University.
  • Determine how we should report on the situation to internal audiences.  For instance, are there town meetings, protests, or vigils? The Office of Communications will be responsible for coordinating print, video, and audio coverage of the events for internal publications and for web posting.
  • If necessary, identify means by which the community can recover, return to normal, and contingent upon circumstance, regain faith in the University after the trigger event of the crisis is over, in coordination with the senior leadership. This may include the need for town hall meetings, letters from the President expressing sympathy, detailed plans to prevent another such crisis, etc.
  • Within 10 days of the end of the event, assess how this plan functioned, address any needed updates, and recognize the work of partners whose help was invaluable.

Approvals of Outgoing Information

Following implementation, the OOC typically will use a collegial approach of multiple approvals before we distribute communications pieces, including emails and news releases.  That system will not work in a crisis.  Seconds matter in a crisis, and we will be judged by how quickly we share information with key audiences.

As a matter of policy, West Liberty is committed to trying to meet these expectations.  It recognizes the need for crisp decision-making during a crisis to enable rapid, accurate communication in coordination with the institution’s broader process.  Final approval for all communications when the Critical Incident Response Plan is invoked rests with the Executive Director of Communications in consultation with a minimum of at least one senior member of the administration (unless the time necessary for consultation creates a dangerous circumstance).  A protocol for consultative structure will be created and provided as an appendix to this document.

Staffing

When a crisis has been declared, employees of the Media Arts Center and Office of Admissions will be relieved of their typical job responsibilities to help execute this plan.

It also may be necessary to have additional help. The Emergency Director and Executive Director of Communications have the authority to enlist communicators from across West Liberty and assign them to the crisis response effort.

The End of the Crisis

The Emergency Director (ED) will determine when the crisis has ended and routine communications processes can resume. The decision to declare the emergency over will trigger a review of how the crisis was handled and how communications can improve.

Education and Testing

The Office of Communications in conjunction with Campus Police will take the lead in educating our community about how and when members would get messages from West Liberty in a crisis. The procedures may be similar to those used to educate the community about the University’s approach to severe weather.

When the University conducts a regular drill of emergency management (as determined by the Critical Incident Response Team), the drill should include participation by all members of the Crisis Communications Team.

The Office of Communications will schedule media training sessions for senior administrators and key team members.  After the initial session, additional sessions will be scheduled as needed for employees who are new to the Crisis Communications Team.  A refresher course in media training should be offered every two years.

Media training also will be necessary for certain officials who are not part of the Crisis Communications Team.  If an employee’s expertise is essential to the University’s response to a certain crisis, that employee should be trained properly to interact with the media.

Approved October 19, 2010